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How is Digital Forensics Used in Child Sexual Offence Investigations?

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Digital forensics often form a core part of criminal investigations in the UK, being used for a variety of offences.

In particular, digital forensics investigations are commonly used when someone is accused of committing a child sexual offence, owing to the nature of evidence which needs to be collated by prosecuting authorities.

Below, we discuss what digital forensics are, how they are used in child sexual offence investigations, whether they can ever be contested, and what steps you can take if you are facing a digital forensics investigation.

What is digital forensics?

Digital forensics involves the recovery, examination and presentation of digital evidence (anything that can be recovered from digital media) for use in criminal investigations. Digital forensic investigations often centre around accessing data from devices such as computers, mobile phones, tablets, smart watches and smart TVs.

Digital forensic investigations are most commonly used in child sexual offences. In fact, a 2021 academic paper indicated that 80% of digital forensic work deals with the sexual abuse of children.

It should be noted that digital forensic work isn’t exclusively carried out for criminal case work. It can also be used in a commercial setting, such as to support an internal investigation within a business, or to help someone with a personal matter, such as to recover photographs from a corrupted hard drive.

How is it used in child sexual offence investigations?

Digital forensic investigations into child sexual offences aim to identify any potential digital sources used by the alleged offender that would be capable of storing digital information and could therefore be a source of evidence.

In child sexual offences, these often include personal computers, mobile phones, tablets and digital cameras.

The main goal of a digital forensics investigation, including in child sexual offences, is to extract data from the relevant device and process it into actionable intelligence for the prosecution. This means that various forensic techniques are used to make sure that any findings are subsequently admissible in court, should they be required.

The sort of data that can be extracted from a digital forensics investigation includes:

  • Text messages
  • Emails
  • Photographs
  • Social media activity
  • WhatsApp messages
  • Internet search history
  • Location data
  • Applications

According to digital forensics investigation procedures, once devices have been analysed and data has been collected, the devices continue to be securely stored by the police so that the data can be authenticated. Devices are only returned once an investigation has been concluded.

In child sexual offence investigations, the findings from digital forensics are often critical. Offences such as indecent images of children primarily take place in a digital space, highlighting why the police place an emphasis on gathering as much evidence from digital devices as possible.

Can you contest the findings of digital forensics investigations?

It may be possible to contest some of the findings from a digital forensics investigation, but this is entirely dependent on the nature of the offence and the type of evidence that has been found.

The evidence that derives from digital forensics are usually facts which are technically correct. This means that there is often very little grounds on which they can be contested. However, there may be a scenario where a technical expert does not agree with the technical findings and what they show, or the evidence on the table is not sufficient for a conviction.

For example, if images are found on a device, it may be up to the interpretation of the law as to whether these images are ‘indecent’ and that a charge for indecent images of children can be brought forward.

What defences may be available following a digital forensics investigation?

If you are under investigation for a child sex offence, and are subject to digital forensics legislation in the UK, there are a number of potential defences which your legal team can explore. These include:

Legitimate reason

If a digital forensics investigation uncovers indecent material on any of your devices, it may be a defence if you are able to prove that you had a ‘legitimate reason’ for having the material, e.g. for academic research. It could be a defence if you are a genuine researcher who had no alternative but to have the material in your possession.

Lack of awareness

Even if you own a device and a digital forensics investigation uncovers evidence that points towards a child sex offence taking place, it may be possible to make out the defence that you had a ‘lack of awareness’ of the images. This could be if you have not seen the images and had no reason to suspect that they were on your device.

Marriage and other relationships

Defences can be put forward if material found as a result of a digital forensics investigation involves a spouse or other relation. If a photograph is of a child aged 16 or 17 and, at the time of the conduct, a defendant and said child were married or in a civil partnership, this could be a viable defence.

Are there limitations to digital forensics?

While digital forensics can be a very accurate tool for prosecutors, it is not without its limitations. The primary limitation is that it is simply not always possible to place an alleged offender physically in front of a device to prove that they were the ones using it at the time of an offence.

While it is possible to show that an account was in use at the time, this does not always prove who was physically using the device.

This is why digital forensics is used in tandem with other information, such as CCTV footage and eye-witness accounts.

Can the defence use digital forensics to their advantage?

It is possible for a legal defence team to also use digital forensics to aid their case. At JD Spicer Zeb, we work alongside leading digital forensics provider Cyfor, who offer face to face advice on the forensic aspect of any police investigation. They can advise you on the lines of forensics the police may use and what the outcome may be for interrogation of various devices.

Should you speak to a solicitor if you are facing a child sexual offence investigation?

If you have been arrested or released under investigation for a child sexual offence, it is incredibly important that you understand how serious the potential sentences can be if you are found guilty. Should you be in this situation and your devices have been seized, it is imperative that you speak to a specialist criminal defence solicitor as soon as possible.

Even where you may have taken a simple action such as downloading an image, you could be liable to face a lengthy prison sentence if you do not have access to expert legal defence.

The findings from digital forensics investigations can often prove to be crucial, which is why the advice and guidance of an experienced sexual offence solicitor can make all the difference.

While you may be under the impression that speaking to a solicitor will act against you, as it will signify some form of guilt, this is not at all accurate. In fact, speaking to a solicitor is the most sensible course of action you can take.

At JD Spicer Zeb, our sexual offence solicitors have many years of experience in representing clients accused of a range of offences and whose devices have been seized for forensic investigation. We will take every step to ensure that you reach the best possible outcome – whether that means avoiding charges, or reducing a sentence where conviction is unavoidable.

In addition to guiding you through the general criminal defence process, we also offer our own digital forensics support. As discussed above, we work with leading digital forensic provider Cyfor, who can offer efficient advice on the digital forensic aspect of an investigation. This can cost from around £500 plus VAT.

Contact our criminal defence lawyers today

For urgent specialist advice, immediate representation or to speak to us confidentially about a serious sexual offence case, please do not hesitate to contact our dedicated team of serious sexual offence lawyers in London, Birmingham or Manchester.

You can contact our dedicated sexual offence lawyers in London, Birmingham, and Manchester by telephone on:

Or email: solicitors@jdspicer.co.uk

Alternatively, you can fill out our quick online enquiry form, and we will get back to you as soon as possible.

24/7 legal representation for sexual offence allegations

Please get in touch for a free initial consultation with one of our expert sexual offence solicitors, as well as immediate representation and advice on dealing with digital forensics investigations.

We are available to represent clients all over England and Wales at any time, so please contact our Emergency Number at 07836 577 556.

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