Liam Allan’s rape case fell apart with one last-minute text. Now police want full access to victims’ phones
Cases have been collapsing as evidence only comes to light at the last minute
Criminology student Liam Allan waited for two years, facing the prospect of 20 years in prison as rape accusations hung over him. At his trial, a last-minute discovery of a text by his accuser cleared his name.
Now, police are asking people making rape accusations to hand over their phones or risk their case falling apart.
Introduced in response to a number of rape cases falling apart with last-minute evidence, new disclosure forms are being condemned by campaigners as a "deterrent" for victims, who they say will be treated as suspects, but welcomed by Liam as a "good start".
‘It wasn’t against my will or anything’: How the Liam Allan rape case built over two years fell apart with a single text
Liam Allan and his girlfriend met at a party through mutual friends. During the course of their 18-month relationship, Liam told his mum he was worried about making things sexual. He would be his girlfriend's first, and he wanted to "make sure it was important and special."
In September 2015, he went off to do a Criminology and Criminal Psychology degree at Greenwich. He had a new group of friends, but felt he was sacrificing too much for the relationship. It was a break-up like many others which happen during the first term of uni, and his girlfriend was upset.
In January, as Liam made his way back from playing football one evening, some police officers were waiting for him in a car park. They arrested him. His ex had accused him of forcing her hands behind her back, tied her to a bedpost and held a pillow over her face while having sex.
It wasn't until January 2017 he was charged with six rapes and one sexual assault. He'd been in legal limbo for almost two years and now faced up to 20 years in prison.
Liam's lawyers asked for full disclosure of texts from his accuser's phone in June. The Met police denied the request a month later saying there were "no relevant downloads".
During this time, Liam Allan was isolated, and described it as "mental torture." He was unable to speak to people close to him because it might impact the trial.
“You are all on your own. I could not talk to my mother about the details of the case because she might have been called as a witness, I couldn’t talk with my friends because they might have been called," he told The Times.
The night before the trial in December 2017, police handed over 58,000 texts to Liam's lawyer. His barrister Julia read through 2,500 sheets of paper until 4am. She found something.
At the trial, Liam's ex testified for 90 minutes behind a screen. After that, Liam's lawyer read out the text she had found.
On September 3rd, days after the alleged assault, Liam's accuser had texted her friend about him. In the conversation, while discussing sex with Liam, she said "It wasn't against my will or anything.”
The judge ordered a two week recess, and just before Christmas Liam got a call saying the CPS were dropping the case. Later, the Met Police admitted they didn't look through all the texts available, and apologised to Liam.
As rape trials fell apart with last-minute evidence, police are now asking victims for access to their phones
Off the back of this, police looked into thousands of sex offence cases. 47 prosecutions were dropped, meaning Liam's was just one of many which fell apart due to evidence emerging at the last minute.
Rape charges fell by 23 per cent as trials collapsed over disclosure problems.
Now, police are introducing disclosure forms and asking people making accusations to hand over their phones.
Previously without an adequate way to handle the vast amounts of digital evidence involved in modern trials, police have turned to disclosure methods used in terror trials and are receiving training to do so.
Victims will be asked for a "Digital Processing Notice" to gather relevant information from their phones – a consent form detailing what will happen and getting permission to take texts
Police warn that it "may not be possible for the investigation or prosecution to continue" without this disclosure.
The phones could be kept for several months, with the possibility of police supplying a spare. Any irrelevant material found on the phone will be kept until the case is closed.
In the form, revealed by The Guardian, details for the phone's unlock code are also needed.
If any data is going to be shown to the defendant, police will tell the victim. Police also warn that if data is found on the phone which "suggests the commission of a separate criminal offence", that will be investigated.
Liam Allan has welcomed the move. Evidence on the complainant's phone was "so much more valuable than people realise." he said on BBC Breakfast. "It can be so much more valuable to prosecution cases as well as defence cases. It is a good step in the right direction.”
Liam Allan, whose trial for rape collapsed when it emerged texts had not been disclosed, says "it's not like we should be treated exactly the same" but alleged rapists and victims "deserve the same rights until the point of conviction #r4today https://t.co/OfQWJKHKaZ pic.twitter.com/s8clXtcsEI
— BBC Radio 4 Today (@BBCr4today) April 29, 2019
However, charities have warned it may put people off coming forward. Only 3.8 per cent of the 159,740 sexual offences reported to police in 2018 resulted in charges. Rachel Almeida, a spokeswoman for the Victim Support charity, told The Times: "This news could further deter victims from coming forward to access the justice and support they deserve."
Judges will be able to block disclosure of evidence purely intended to highlight "bad character" in victims, and the Information Commissioner's Office will be investigating how the data is used.
In Liam's case, the crucial evidence was missed by police among 58,000 texts. Getting all the data from an average Samsung S8 would result in millions of pages of A4.
On Radio Four's Today programme, Liam Allan called the forms "step one of a hundred", and argued that police should only look at information from the relevant time period.
Officials are arguing that it's a way to make sure victims have clarity over the process, and that investigations are more secure and consistent.
Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Nicholas Ephgrave said that so far there was no clear way to explain to victims how information would be gathered and used from their phones. “There’s no piece of legislation that gives us power to seize a digital device from complainants and witnesses. We have to rely on their consent and that consent has to be revocable,” he said.
The consent forms are a not the finished article, he told The Guardian, but a "good start".