As a victim of abuse or any sexual crime those who come forward or are involved in any form of police investigation are protected by anonymity.
It is protection provided by the law which is crucial in giving people the confidence to come forward and speak about what has happened to them, be it a recently committed crime, or something that happened years ago.
In our work at Hudgell Solicitors, our specialist solicitors support many who have been abused or sexually assaulted in their lives and we know they need 100 per cent confidence in the people they entrust with the details of what happened to them.
They need 100 per cent trust they will be protected, and not let down again.
This makes the news of Gloucestershire police mistakenly sending out a bulk email to 56 people which identified multiple alleged victims of historical child abuse both shocking and saddening.
The message it sends out is not one of trust but of a lack of care, and that could be hugely damaging and something which may well prevent other victims of abuse from speaking about what has happened to them.
Serious errors caused by police forces failing to follow basic standards
The error was made by one officer when sending an update on the case by email in December 2016. He entered the addresses of the recipients in the “To” field and did not use the “bcc” (blind carbon copy) function, which would have hidden identities.
Each recipient of the e-mail, which reportedly may have included lawyers and journalists as well as victims and witnesses – could see both e-mail addresses and full names of the others. Schools and other organisations being investigated were also named.
However, although the error was that of an individual, who was referred by the force to the professional standards department, I firmly believe such mistakes only happen due to a lack of thorough procedures, processes and accountability across many of our police forces today.
This is highlighted in the fact that at the time of this data breach, the “bcc” field was not a function automatically selected on the email software of Gloucestershire police. Staff members had to adjust their own settings to be able to use this function when sending out bulk emails on sensitive investigations.
The force was also found to have failed to provide staff with any – or any adequate – guidance or training on bulk email communication.
Given the known risks of sending of bulk emails – in any working environment – this was effectively a disaster waiting to happen and suggests a complete disregard as to the importance of protecting the rights of those they serve when investigating such serious alleged crimes.
Force’s decision to appeal £80,000 fine is shocking response
The force has rightly been fined £80,000 by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which said the error was likely to have caused “substantial distress” to alleged abuse victims.
Yet rather than accept the huge significance of this error and focus its efforts on learning lessons and making changes to prevent it ever happening again, Gloucestershire police has said it is considering an appeal, as it says the email message was not sent to journalists and lawyers, as the ICO said.
This is irrelevant, as the issue is not who received the details, it is the fact that they received their personal details at all.
I find this a truly shocking response from the force and is certainly not something which suggests it is holding up its hands and accepting its wrongdoing, or carrying out a thorough review of processes to ensure it is not repeated.
Sadly, this is not an isolated case.
Earlier this year, Humberside Police was fined £130,000 after losing the recorded interview of an alleged rape victim, a woman we are now representing in a legal claim against the force.
The highly sensitive information, which was contained in an envelope and not protected, was left on a police officer’s desk and went missing. It had been due to be posted to Cleveland Police but never arrived, and due to substandard audit trails at the force, it was not even known if it was ever posted as intended.
This woman has completely lost her confidence in the police and legal system as a result.