Guidance for rape trial prosecutors could “dramatically reduce protection and rights to privacy” for victims and turn them away from “vital” therapy, campaigners have warned.
They say that the latest Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) advice would increase the “likelihood that rape victims’ private therapy notes will be accessed by prosecutors and used to discredit them in court”, according to the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), Rape Crisis England & Wales and the Centre for Women’s Justice.
The campaigners added that this will “deter” many women from seeking support and could “discourage” victims from talking to therapists freely.
The CPS said the material should only be sought when relevant and the latest guidance “seeks to alleviate victim concerns that accessing counselling could damage the prosecution case”, adding they should not delay seeking therapy because of a criminal probe.
It said police and prosecutors are asked to give “very serious consideration” to whether requesting therapy notes “represents a reasonable line of enquiry” in the case.
The CPS added that the police and prosecutors – as well as therapists – must comply with data protection laws and that the requests for notes must be “specific and only sought when necessary”.
“These notes will only be shared with the defence if they contain material capable of undermining the prosecution case or assisting the suspect,” it said.
However, the campaigners said the decision could “dramatically reduce protection and rights to privacy for survivors of rape and sexual violence”.
“Once a victim is aware that any disclosure they make in counselling could make its way into the criminal justice system, it is clear this will discourage them from having therapy or talking freely with a therapist,” they added.
Rebecca Hitchen, head of policy and campaigns at the EVAW, described the move as a “serious intrusion into victims’ rights to privacy”.
The CPS said changes to disclosure guidelines published by the Attorney General’s Office will “stop invasive and disproportionate requests for victims’ private information during criminal investigations”.
It added that a requirement has been imposed for investigators or prosecutors seeking material like therapy notes to justify in writing why the material is being accessed, before its obtained.
CPS lead for rape and serious sexual assault prosecutions, Siobhan Blake, said: “The wellbeing of victims is paramount in every investigation. Survivors of sexual offences can seek the support they need and not worry their road to recovery will have an impact on court proceedings.
“Balancing a victim’s right to privacy with a suspect’s right to a fair trial is a sensitive issue.”
Solicitor General Alex Chalk said he was “confident the guidelines will bring about positive change, balancing victims’ privacy rights with the unassailable right to fair trial”.