Rape victims will be given an exact copy of their phone if police need to keep it for more than 24 hours, a government review will announce this week.
The 18-month review, due to report on Friday, will require all 43 police forces in England and Wales to hand back phones to victims within 24 hours as part of a raft of measures to reverse the slump in rape convictions.
Delays in handing back phones have led to victims dropping their complaints after being left adrift without one, at a time when they need the support of family and friends.
If the police cannot return the actual phone, they will have to provide an alternative with exactly the same number, contacts and data on it.
It follows reports by Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner, and Big Brother Watch which found some forces kept phones for more than five months while they investigated the data held on them. By contrast, others were able to hand them back within hours.
“The aim is to get it done within a day and give it back but if they cannot, the fallback is an identical phone so that the impact on the victims is minimised,” said a government source. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is planning talks with the telecom companies to deliver the plan.
The review will also stipulate that police and prosecutors should only examine data that is “necessary and proportionate” to the investigation following complaints by victims of “digital strip searches” of their private messages and sex lives.
The shake-up is being led by Robert Buckland, the Justice Secretary, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, and solicitor general Lucy Frazer after the proportion of rapes resulting in a charge fell in five years from 8.3 per cent to just 1.6 per cent.
Victims withdrawing from prosecutions have doubled from 20 per cent to more than 40 per cent in the same period, largely due to intrusive police investigations into their digital communications, court delays and the trauma of reliving their attack in court.
Two in five rape cases being dropped as victim doesn’t support police
Ms Patel will write to all 43 police forces urging them to consider a more “suspect-focused” approach to rape investigations rather than concentrating on establishing the credibility of the victim.
The approach, pioneered by Avon and Somerset Police in a Home Office-backed trial called Project Bluestone, will be extended with government funding to up to six more police forces under the sobriquet of Soteria, who was a Greek goddess for safety and salvation.
The review will also extend pilot schemes where victims can pre-record their evidence, including cross-examination by lawyers, which are then played during a trial sparing them the trauma of appearing in court.
Ministers believe the move could increase guilty pleas by accused rapists who often hold out for a trial in the knowledge that their victim may withdraw. It also enables victims to get their evidence out of the way so they can start to rebuild their lives.
The review will propose a public education campaign to combat rape myths and more specialist support for victims through having independent sexual assault advisors (IVSAs) who can guide them every step of the way to court.
CPS: 39 rape myths or stereotypes
Giving evidence to the Justice Committee on Tuesday, Max Hill, head of the Crown Prosecution Service, admitted there was an “alarming disparity” between the number of reports of rape and the number that reached the CPS and were prosecuted. Of 52,000 offences in 2020, just 843 resulted in a charge.
He suggested there were three key reasons why just 2,740 cases reached the CPS: victims who made a complaint but then did not want to put up with up to three years’ further trauma in their lives, police deciding the allegation could not be proved and lack of resources.