CAMPAIGNERS across the region have joined growing criticism of new consent forms asking rape victims to hand over their mobile phones or risk letting their attackers go unpunished.

Consent forms, which ask permission to access messages, photographs, emails and social media accounts, have been rolled out across the 43 forces in England and Wales.

The move is part of the response to the disclosure scandal, which rocked confidence in the criminal justice system when a string of rape and serious sexual assault cases collapsed after crucial evidence emerged at the last minute.

Durham University’s Professor Nicole Westmarland, director of the Durham Centre for Research into Violence, said: “In my experience, with nearly 20 years research and of volunteering within the Rape Crisis movement, this will certainly deter some victims from coming forward.

“In particular, this is likely to impact on children and young people, who might have material on their phone that they are worried about their parents or guardians finding out about, and also for people who may have been involved in criminal activities such as drug taking, and are worried about the police finding out about that.

“Sex workers in particular are one group who can be at particularly high risk of rape, and lots of efforts have been made in recent years to increase trust between the police and sex worker communities – this new policy seems to undermine some of these efforts.

“Sadly, no one is immune from the risk of rape and sexual violence – although we know that those who are vulnerable in some way might be more likely to be targeted."

She added: “We know from research for example that people with mental health problems or learning disabilities might be particularly targeted.

“This policy may increase the targeting of people who are particularly dependent on their mobile phone and may have photos, texts, or other material on there that they might be embarrassed or ashamed of sharing and which might ultimately be used to undermine their complaint of rape or sexual assault."

Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner Dame Vera Baird said there was a “public safety issue” that could see serial rapists walk free if victims do not come forward, because they don’t want every element of their private life examined.

“This is not consent,” she warned. “This is an authority figure telling you to sign a form as soon as you have finished an interview which may be reliving what is one of the most horrific experiences of your life. If you don’t agree that’s the end of the case and you’ve just done the interview for nothing”.

She said the forms were just part of the problem as police and prosecutors look to harvest third party material, such as school records and medical notes. “The evidence is already there, those victims who decline to grant access are having their cases dropped. Home Office figures show the proportion of rape cases being prosecuted nationally had dropped to a low of just 1.7 percent, for victims to sign away their privacy to hand over their mobiles will see this figure drop even further.”

Richinda Taylor, chief executive of the Redcar-based Eva Woman’s Aid, said: “For a lot of people the phone is their lifeline and to have that taken away from you while undergoing a lot of stress and trauma, having been a victim of rape or sexual violence, can be very frightening.

“It is is putting a lot of responsibility on the victim for having to give evidence when the prosecution is actually the responsibilty of the CPS and police.

“Although we do understand about supporting a prosecution, there are other ways of finding evidence, other than forcing victims to do his.

"I can well imagine if you are told 'if you don’t do this your perpetrator is going to walk free', it is a huge amount of pressure to put on someone who is already experienced a massive trauma and could potentially deter victims from coming forward.

"If they have a specific reason where they need to see a phone, or the victim has identified something that would be useful, it needs to be done sensitively with the support of specialist services like Eva Woman’s Aid, so that we can work with the woman to support her during that.

"They should not just automatically take a mobile off someone as a routine."