Victims of crimes are to be asked to hand their phones over to police – or risk prosecutions not going ahead.
Consent forms asking for permission to access information including emails, messages and photographs have been rolled out in England and Wales.
Victim Support said the move could stop victims from coming forward.
But police and prosecutors say the forms are an attempt to plug a gap in the law which says complainants and witnesses cannot be forced to disclose phones, laptops, tablets or smart watches.
Director of Public Prosecutions Max Hill said they would only be looked at where it forms a “reasonable line of enquiry“, with only relevant material going before a court if it meets stringent rules.
The digital consent forms can be used for complainants in any criminal investigations but are most likely to be used in rape and sexual assault cases, where complainants often know the suspect.
The forms state that victims will be given the chance to explain why they don’t want to give consent for police to access data, but they are also told: “If you refuse permission for the police to investigate, or for the prosecution to disclose material which would enable the defendant to have a fair trial then it may not be possible for the investigation or prosecution to continue.”
Legal Challenge Already Planned
A legal challenge is already being planned, the Centre for Women’s Justice said. A claim is expected to be brought by at least two women who have been told their cases could collapse if they do not cooperate with requests for personal data.
The Centre for Women’s Justice expressed “serious concerns” over what it called “excessive disclosure requests” from police.
The Metropolitan Police said it recognised the “inconvenient” and “awkward” nature of handing devices to police.
In a statement, the force said: “People who have been victimised and subjected to serious sexual assaults, for example, that’s an awful thing to happen to them and you don’t wish to make it worse by making their lives really difficult.
“But to pursue the offender, the way the law is constructed, we do have these obligations, so we have to find a way of getting that information with a) as much consent as we can, which is informative and b) with the minimum of disruption and irritation and embarrassment to the person whose phone it is that we’re dealing with.”