A smart phone can hold a lifetime of information - around 256GB of data, or 12.3m printed pages, including thousands of deleted texts. Add medical history, third-party material, and you have just one small snapshot of the extent of materials an already over-stretched police force must examine as part of the process of disclosure – the evidence submitted to them.
The issue of disclosure is particularly crucial in rape cases and trials, demonstrating why this is not an easy issue to solve. For the victim, some of the materials disclosed are likely to be the subject of challenging cross-examination – on top of the physical and emotional probing they will have already undergone to ensure that the case proceeds to trial. It is perhaps no wonder that last year, of 17,000 recorded sexual offences, less than 3,000 went to trial, and under 2,000 were successful.
The review into rape investigations and trial processes by the Met Police and Crown Prosecution Service highlights the grave complexities of dealing with these very difficult cases. Many rape cases collapse because a victim is not willing to disclose irrelevant and highly personal information. I’m aware of one case, where a woman was raped by a stranger, collapsing despite overwhelming forensic evidence simply because the victim did not want to disclose medical records that would allow her painful history of anorexia to be made public and pored over in a court room.
In the Liam Allen case, it was vital disclosure evidence that caused the case to collapse and made sure a miscarriage of justice was avoided. However, in a world of such overwhelming volumes of digital materials, we must guard against unnecessary intrusions and taking things out of context. Out of context, irrelevant material can be used as evidence to reinforce myths and stereotypes to discredit victims. And why is it that the accused are not obligated to disclose their phones?
Since being appointed by the Mayor, Sadiq Khan, as the capital’s first independent Victims’ Commissioner, I have heard too many harrowing stories about the shocking process victims face after they make an allegation of rape or sexual assault. Losing their phone for months so it can be analysed for evidence; lengthy delays in getting to court; limited access to compensation and counselling in case it is disclosed and used against them; unrelated sexual history dissected in a public court room and used in cross-examination. This is no way to achieve justice.
It is time to put victims, especially the #MeToo generation and those who have suffered rape and extreme violence, at the centre of the system, and recognise their rights as well as those of the accused and offenders.
As London’s victims’ commissioner, I have already started an in-depth analysis of rape cases in London, alongside the Met police and CPS, to improve our understanding of the victims’ experience and guide us in making the changes necessary to reduce attrition – the collapse of cases - and the possibility of being re-traumatised.
It is my job to give victims a voice and I am working tirelessly to improve the support available to help them cope and recover, and give them the confidence to come forward and find justice. I will do everything in my power to achieve this.
Claire Waxman was appointed as the first independent Victims’ Commissioner for London by the Mayor of London in 2017. She was the victim of a prolonged stalking campaign.