Balance for Better: False Rape Accusations

“The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organisation but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.”


Gloria Steinem

I couldn’t agree more.

However, there are areas where this creates tensions. There are currently loud voices claiming that levels of false reports of rape/sexual harassment are high.

High profile campaigner, BBC broadcaster Simon Warr is on a mission to expose the issues of false allegations. For the most part I agree wholeheartedly with him. People who make false allegations make life far more difficult for those who tell the truth to be believed.

Where our paths diverge is that he objects strongly to the “You will be believed” approach, so essential before women feel safe to report sexual abuse of any kind.

David McGough, according to his Twitter profile is a musician (Loves: wife, family & friends, music, travel, nature, good health, sport. Hates: false accusations, British Injustice).

“Those who think the justice system should convict more easily people accused of rape or sexual abuse as protection for women and children should consider whether the wives and children of those wrongfully convicted have been protected. Their families are innocent victims too,” he says.

I have a degree of sympathy with the view that the families of convicts pay a high price. The stigmatism is dreadful, particularly for children.

Where we diverge is the assertion, based on his wife’s experiences, for which I have a great deal of sympathy, that false allegations are so much worse than sexual assault, and that we should not be adopting a ‘believe her’ attitude. Too many women struggle to get their evidence recorded, let alone be believed.

At present our legal system dictates that the punishment for misdoing is the deprivation of freedom. With our prisons stuffed to the gunnels, there’s a strong case for prison reform.

But our justice system needs reform way before a guilty verdict arrives, starting the moment a women -or man – walks into the police station..

“Although we think that #MeToo and Time’s Up have caused more women to come forward and more confidence in the system, the reality is that the CPS are charging many less rape cases than they were a few years ago and that’s hugely alarming,” said Harriet Wistrich, co-founder of the Centre for Women’s Justice and solicitor for two of John Worboys’ victims in this month’s Grazia magazine.

A quick read of “Eve was Shamed” by Helena Kennedy QC reveals some of the underlying issues faced by women in accessing justice within our legal system.

These are two brilliant legal minds, closer to the legal system than almost anyone, keen to reform its injustice towards women.

The National Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence and Multiple Disadvantage, which was established in 2017 to gather evidence on the links between domestic and sexual abuse and “multiple disadvantages” such as substance misuse, mental health issues or homelessness, found that women face devastating consequences because they are unable to get the support they need, failed by a system which is meant to help them.

Add to this that rising numbers of domestic abuse suspects are being released without restrictions after a steep fall in the use of police bail. Releasing suspects ‘under investigation’ instead, means that they are not subject to bans on contacting victims, for example.

Women are finding it hard to get justice. I am regularly contacted by people who are fighting the system to even be heard. My own experiences and theirs have clearly shown me that:

  • ‘you will be believed’ is a fairly long way from what actually happens, as police officers who’ve heard every excuse under the sun and have learned not to trust what they’re told, struggle to ‘unlearn’ their cynicism;
  • it often takes a police complaint/multiple contacts for officers to find the time/energy to even fully take evidence;
  • police won’t investigate if they don’t think there’s enough evidence to secure a conviction, and often won’t even take evidence unless the victim is particularly persistent;
  • women are more likely to be offered mental health and victim support than justice;
  • justice and the law aren’t always the same thing;
  • the CPS has high standards for evidence before anything will be taken to court – they need to believe that there is sufficient evidence to secure a conviction before they’ll touch a s case – no woman is being taken at her word.

So whilst we have all seen some fairly massive miscarriages of justice, I find it highly unlikely that an accusation will be a false one by the time it gets to court in the current climate, since there will have been considerable evidence – not just one word against the other. Most victims have had to spend hours collating evidence. Many have undergone intrusive forensic examinations.

The kind of attention that gets turned onto accusers is more likely to deter than encourage a false accusation. We cannot take a stance that implies that if there is no guilty verdict a woman lied, any more than a man found ‘not guilty’ simply got away with it. Both come with a stigma.

In 2017-2018, the number of rapes recorded by police in England and Wales increased by 31 per cent (almost 54,000 offences). Less than half of the cases referred to prosecutors by police (47 per cent) were taken forward, down from 55 per cent the year before – and police had passed almost 10 per cent less suspects on. (Source Independent )

Historically, women who have been sexually assaulted face an uphill battle in getting police and the public to believe them. It’s therefore unsurprising that CSEW surveys show that around 80 per cent of sexual assault victims never report their experiences to the police.

Women generally know they won’t be believed and/or can’t face reliving their ordeal(s).

I used to think that ‘not naming’ the accused would be a huge deterrent against false accusation. But that 80% is precisely the reason that ‘not naming accused offenders’ is unacceptable – people who don’t think they’d be believed are more likely be able to step forward when someone else has done the hard bit, and it’s likely that they they WILL be believed. Moreover, serial offenders deserve to be caught!

Past surveys have shown that around 10% of rape allegations did not continue through to court because the victim retracted their claim. Some were because the investigations had spiralled out of control. Some were because victims were threatened or coerced. It’s a complex scenario, and it’s also known that true victims will withdraw allegations to help distance themselves from the process/trauma, because they are too embarrassed, or because their personal situation leaves them too vulnerable to proceed.

Criminalising women when there’s no ‘guilty verdict’ cannot be right. A ‘not guilty’ verdict does not mean they lied. Yet ‘not proven’ verdicts have been shown to come with layers of problems and even more stigma.

For those that have clearly lied, there are already sanctions: perverting the course of justice and wasting police time. And we should, for everyone’s sake, throw the book at liars prepared to cause that much pain.

We live in troubled times. US President Trump – a known misogynist – recently played on men’s fears that women who allege sexual assault are liars, suggesting “you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of.” Against this backdrop, it’s easy to see why men might feel aggrieved. I certainly wouldn’t want my sons, father or male friends to be wrongly accused. It’s life changing and comes with a huge stigma.

Yet in 2018, only 6.6% of rape allegations resulted in a conviction (source ONS), despite the CPS narrowing the criteria for putting case through for prosecution.  By contrast, the last stats I can trace show that around 0.6% of rape allegations resulted in an accuser being taken to court for false accusations. The prevalence of false allegations is likely to be 2-10%, at most.

The truth is that men are more likely to be raped themselves than falsely accused of rape.

The Gillen Report, 2018, noted that “positive affirmative education on the realities of serious sexual offences and their consequences must be given not only to juries actually hearing these cases but, perhaps more importantly, to the public at large if we are to embrace a truly just, fair and civilised concept of the rule of law.”

Against this background, suggesting that female victims should be treated as liars when they find the courage to walk into a police station is hard to swallow. Most women report to protect others rather than expecting justice for themselves. Their chances of justice are low, but we should not deter women from reporting genuine rape. Suggestions that we should assume women are lying has to be wrong.

Let’s not take away the progress that’s been made in willingness to report rape by placing a focus on false accusation. With a massive level of under reporting and low expectations of justice anyway, you run the risk of ruining what little progress has already been made.

Go ahead, ask for justice. Publicise like crazy when people are found guilty of lying about rape. They’re no friends of mine.

There should be no competition over which is the greatest evil, being wrongly accused or being raped, as has been suggested by some. Change is already in the air.

The Gillen Report, 2018, notes that the pathway from initial complaint through to trial is ”too steep, too long and too unwieldy for both complainant and accused”. It needs urgent reform. This, I feel, is something we can all agree on.

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