Concerns have been raised by campaigners that guidance for rape trial prosecutors could “dramatically reduce protection and rights to privacy” for victims and turn them away from “vital” therapy.

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, which will deter many women from seeking this life-changing and life-saving support”, according to the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), Rape Crisis England & Wales and the Centre for Women’s Justice.

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.

Police and prosecutors are asked to give “very serious consideration as to whether requesting therapy notes represents a reasonable line of enquiry” in the case and they – as well as therapists – must comply with data protection laws, the CPS said.

Bournemouth Echo: The potential for rape trial prosecutors to access patient trials could stop woman going to therapy, campaign groups have said (PA)The potential for rape trial prosecutors to access patient trials could stop woman going to therapy, campaign groups have said (PA)

They added: “Any requests for therapy notes must be specific and only sought when necessary. Any unfocused requests to browse patients’ files should not be made.

“These notes will only be shared with the defence if they contain material capable of undermining the prosecution case or assisting the suspect.”

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 said, adding: “To ensure that third-party material such as therapy notes and medical records are only sought where appropriate, proportionate, and balanced with the right to privacy, we have imposed a requirement for investigators or prosecutors to justify in writing why the material is being accessed before it is obtained.”

EVAW and the other groups claimed the terminology is too broad and “will drastically lower the bar – advising that therapy notes should be secured if it is thought they may be relevant to the case”.

The decision could “dramatically reduce protection and rights to privacy for survivors of rape and sexual violence”, the campaigners said.

They added: “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.”

Rebecca Hitchen, head of policy and campaigns at the EVAW, described the move as a “serious intrusion into victims’ rights to privacy”.

She said: “At a time when rape convictions are the lowest on record, we are at a loss to understand why the CPS have opted for a more punitive approach to victims.”