Sexual Assault Awareness Month: Is it right to ask a survivor to hand their phone over?

In my last blog post, I stated…

The Crime Survey for England and Wales in 2018, claimed that many sexual assault offences do not result in a conviction. And that a lot of offences do not proceed any further than the police investigation because of ‘evidential difficulties.’


Ok, I understand you need some kind of evidence to convict a person. But most sexual assaults don’t leave visible evidence. And also that’s only assuming that a survivor wants to come forward straight away. For a lot of people, it’s a subject that they want never to be talked about. Or it’s something that takes time to come to terms, if ever, with what has happened.

And if you wait too long, any evidence that could have remained is most likely gone. Therefore,  something needs to be done to change the way that the law looks at, and convicts sexual assault attacks, especially in regards to evidence.


An alternative way to collect evidence has been initiated:

A very recent BBC article titled “Rape victims among those to be asked to hand phones to police” (not the most sensitive of titles) details how people who are “alleging rape, are to be asked to hand their phones over to the police – or risk prosecutions not going ahead.” This change has apparently come after numerous rape and sexual assault cases collapsed following the emergence of crucial evidence. The move is meant to provide new evidence, particularly where “complainants” know the subject, and therefore their communication could hold crucial evidence.


But somethings not quite right here.

“One woman, who wants to remain anonymous, says she was raped in April 2016 by someone she knew and reported it two months later.” (BBC News)

Apparently, she had messaged multiple people that night about the incident, and therefore the police wanted to extract data. But it then took 2 years and repeated requests to get her phone back, and apparently when she received it hadn’t been turned on in two years. Not only that, but the phone of the perpetrator was never taken, despite her giving his name and address. He has since faced no consequences.


Another woman, a university student from London, was sexually assaulted on campus last year. She stated, “I didn’t have the courage to report it straight away – but when I saw him on campus again, I had to.”

According to her, a policewoman then called and informed her that she would need to see her phone. When she turned up to the interview and didn’t hand her phone over, she was made to feel as though she had done something wrong. “It felt so invasive”

“I got halfway through the interview and then stopped. It was almost as traumatic as the incident itself.” (BBC News)


Would you really want to hand over your phone?

Critics of the move, have said: “it could prevent victims, particularly teenagers, coming forward over fears that they will have to hand over their mobile” (BBC News).

And really, in this day and age, a mobile, especially to young people, is very important. I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t want to hand it over. But if it was being handled properly, it really could contain vital evidence that could strengthen the case and this is what is needed when there is limited physical body evidence. This is especially what is needed when it is rare for people to come forward straight away. Often physical evidence does not remain for a long period of time.


But it’s not just about losing your phone, the other concern is that your other messages and past sexual history could be brought up in court. We all remember the outrage sparked last year when a defence lawyer referred to a survivor’s underwear, saying “you have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wearing a thong with a lace front.”

In this case, the underwear was used against her, suggesting that she was consenting by her choice of underwear. This not only faced an onslaught of backlash but was completely inappropriate and out of touch with reality. The clothes we wear DO NOT give our consent, and it should never be implied that they do. A crucial consequence of this is that it most likely deterred people from wanting to come forward. The court is an already daunting experience, without the invasive discussion of your clothing and “victim blaming”. By taking someone’s phone, this could repeat itself, and be used by the defence to weaken the survivor’s case by invasively using their previous messages or sexual history against them.


The Daily Mail has also questioned the proposal, highlighting the amount of backlash from critics who believe it’s ‘Licence to let rapists go free’. Apparently, the consent form lets detectives ‘trawl through texts, emails, photographs and social media posts’, this form is being deployed in multiple forces. People are being pressured into it by being told that their case could be dropped if they fail to agree. Why would they need to look through their whole phone, how do past photographs and social media posts determine whether or not someone has been sexually assaulted? To me, it just seems like a way to bring up information that could undermine their case and is incredibly invasive, something that a survivor does not need after they have just had to go through an invasive assault.


If they were to take people’s phones, it wouldn’t work for every case of course; a lot of people wouldn’t have had contact with the perpetrator over their phone. But if it was someone they knew then they may have had contact. And even if they didn’t have contact with the perpetrator over the phone, they may have had contact with friends or family after it happened that could strengthen the case.


Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Nicholas Ephgrave recognised that the move would need to be done “with the minimum disruption and irritation and embarrassment to the person whose phone it is that we’re dealing with.”


But it doesn’t appear that the move is always being handled with care, empathy, or in good time.


There’s no perfect solution.

It feels invasive to take the survivors phone and could give off the impression that they are being treated as suspects. It could also be used to the hindrance of the survivor, bringing up previous messages or their sexual history and using it against them.

Or it could even lead to “victim blaming”.

The survivor shouldn’t be made to feel like they are the ones on trial.

At the same time, something needs to be done to create more evidence for the prosecution.

Could this be a new way, if handled correctly and sensitively, to ensure that more evidence is found?


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