The Home Office will legislate to protect people, including rape victims, from unnecessary requests for personal records.
Announcement to bring in legislation
The UK Government has announced efforts to bring in new legislation to better protect victims from invasive requests for personal records, including during rape investigations. Third-party information on victims, such as education, medical, social services, and counselling records can currently be requested by the police during an investigation, proving to be time-consuming and having a severe impact on victims’ confidence and privacy. The Government conducted a public consultation on these police requests, where experts across the sector, including victims’ groups, shared their views. The response to the consultation includes a commitment to introduce new legislation on the way the police can request access to personal data from third parties.
Aim of the legislation
The legislation will better protect people’s data by ensuring the police and other parties only request this information when it is absolutely necessary. On this issue, the Safeguarding Minister, Sarah Dines, said
“We know that sexual abuse investigations have a significant psychological impact on victims, and it is wrong that victims of some of the most traumatic crimes are having significant amounts of their personal records unnecessarily requested.
“This new legislation and guidance will support the police to ensure all requests are completely necessary, and that we can protect victims and deliver justice more quickly.”
Statutory guidelines for the police
The new legislation will put in place stringent guidelines for the police to request material that is proportionate to the requirements of its case and would be responsible for informing people about the type of information is being requested, the reasons for the same, and how the information will be used. These duties will be further clarified in a code of practice to aid the police in fulfilling their responsibilities.
On the topic, National Police Chiefs’ Council Disclosure Lead, Assistant Chief Constable Tim De Meyer said that police investigators must sometimes seek third party information to ensure that they impartially follow all potential leads in an investigation. In such situations, third party information might support the prosecution case or be required to see that there is a fair trial. The need to seek third party information, then, depends on the circumstances of the case.
“The Government is committed to bringing offenders to justice while treating victims with sensitivity and respect during an investigation. As such, police forces have also welcomed the new proposals. The legislation enables officers to carry out thorough investigations which preserve the right to a fair trial, while respecting the right to privacy of all parties.”Assistant Chief Constable Tim De Meyer, National Police Chiefs’ Council Disclosure Lead
UK Information Commissioner, John Edwards also expressed his thoughts. He stated that it has been established through investigations that the accumulation of excessive personal information from victims of sexual assault causes them to feel re-traumatised by a system that is supposed to provide them support. The Government’s proposed actions demonstrate the possibility of change, and through the collaboration of the police and various organisations across the country, it is believed that progress can be made to avoid making victims feel as if they are being treated as criminals due to excessive extraction of information.
Response from the public
Respondents to the consultation were supportive of the Government’s plans. Moving forward, if the police fail to abide by the statutory duties included in the legislation, they would be in breach of the law and could be open to legal challenge. This new commitment follows the changes the Government has already delivered to address concerns surrounding sensitive information taken from victims’ phones. The new powers introduced in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act (2022), and accompanying code of practice, ensure that all requests for phones and other devices are necessary, proportionate, and that victims are given the information they need to make a decision that is right for them.
This legislation by the Government will be timely and will work well to strengthen alternate measures previously taken. These include offering pre-recorded evidence for rape victims to every Crown Court in England and Wales, sparing them the trauma of testifying during live trial; and committing to quadrupling funding for victim support services by 2025 compared to 2010, including investment to increase the number of independent sexual violence advisors and independent domestic violence advisors to over 1,000 by 2024/25.
Ensuring that victims do not continue to feel victimised, criminalised or harassed should be a priority for the Government. Efforts to pass such legislation help to restore the public’s faith in the Government’s measures to help vulnerable groups in society. Moving forward, the Government should look at stronger and strictly enforced mental and emotional health support measures provided to victims, while developing robust frameworks to enforce these measures across the country.