Readers of these blogs will know that over the last year I have been concerned with the increase in the number of complaints that our current arrangements for criminal justice are resulting in more people (usually men) being charged, convicted and imprisoned – with all the accompanying social stigma – for offences of sexual abuse they are adamant they did not commit. I have recently grouped what I have written about this under a new heading “False Accusations”. It includes my review of n excellent new book on the topic.
Of course we should welcome the fact that the number of successful prosecutions has soared now that the police and prosecution authorities are learning how to handle these cases with greater sensitivity. But we must always be vigilant about the risks created by false allegations, and to ensure that the criminal justice system is much better equipped, through training and procedural reform, and if necessary through law reform, to identify these cases and to ensure that this flow of unjust convictions is reversed. All too often I worry that over-enthusiastic campaigners forget Sir William Blackstone’s adage
“It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer“.
In recent months the report of Sir Richard Henriques into Metropolitan police practice in some of these cases, together with the blistering criticisms contained in the joint report of the Police and CPS Inspectorates about service failings in the disclosure of unused evidence to the defence in Crown Court cases, suggest that some of these worries are now being taken seriously, but there is a lot more to do. I still receive a steady flow of complaints from members of the public. Often there is little I can do but sympathise.
This is why I was so pleased when Jane wrote to me out of the blue the other day. She has had experience as a primary school teacher both in this country and in the United States (where she is now based), and she told me that a large part of her work used to involve looking after the welfare of her students. This led her to become involved with cases in which students were being abused (in one way or another) outside school hours, and she quickly realised just how serious this could be. She also learned, first as a teacher and then as a counsellor, how she could help children passing though such a difficult time.
Jane is clearly not one to walk by on the other side. She is now working as the Content Manager for “On the Wagon”, a small substance abuse campaign site. They are determined to help victims of drug abuse, and to prevent new ones, which is why she believes it is important the site covers many different aspects of the topic, including the effects of child abuse and domestic violence. It provides information in clear, well-written terms, on the warning signs to look out for, the different types of drug abuse, and the resources available for victims and the relatives of victims.
She was keen that I should draw attention to the work she is doing, and I am happy to do so. On the basis of her experience on each side of the Atlantic she volunteered to write a piece about the effect of false accusations. Here it is. It is well worth a read.
Domestic Violence – The Detrimental Effects of False Accusation
There has been a 31% increase in reporting domestic abuse related crimes in England and Wales between 2013-2015. Anyone making false allegations of rape or domestic abuse could be charged with two offences: perverting the course of justice and wasting police time. However, prosecution for these offences is extremely rare. There is lifelong anonymity for the accuser but those on the other side face naming and shaming on every social media outlet possible. Lives are destroyed and they are left with a stigma they may never wash away.
Accusers don’t need evidence. They often don’t even have to be physically present in court. It is literally one person’s word against another and there are unfortunately many stories of injustice.
The motivation behind falsely accusing someone is of no importance. The majority of domestic violence cases being reported come from low to mid-income households. There are many who cannot afford good defence lawyers, further hindering the little chance they have to prove their innocence.
Guilty until proven innocent
The Justice system was set up so everyone remains innocent until proven guilty. With domestic violence cases, though, it seems to be the other way around. Dealing with such life changing circumstances, having to constantly defend oneself and tolerate the abuse from outsiders takes a huge toll on one’s health.
As it is, 75-90% of doctor’s visits are stress-related. Short and long-term effects of stress include anything from losing hair, developing high blood pressure and sleeplessness; but more seriously chronic stress can result in mental health issues, heart disease and even cancer. Not to mention the high possibility of becoming suicidal just out of sheer helplessness.
Being wrongly accused affects the life of anyone. However, the impact on those in the trusted care profession, such as teachers, is magnified by parents going frantic, social media feeds getting out of hand, and the prospect of having to appear on national television. Their livelihood disappears. They will never be able to work in their profession. Once someone is accused, even if the court decides in their favour, the suspicion will linger on forever.
Finding a support network
There are many support groups helping those wrongly accused to find counselling and advice. Various campaigns are also going on to try and influence a change in the current legislation and have more protection for the falsely accused as well as to improve the lives of those already suffering. Campaigners believe there should be lifelong anonymity unless proven guilty.
The integrity of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service have also been questioned before. Some people wonder whether they pursue certain convictions only to enhance their target rates.
This is not to say that true victims of domestic violence and child abuse should think twice before reporting the incident to the police. No. These are serious offences and those committing such acts need to be brought to justice. It is, however, important to remember that such allegations are not to be taken lightly and false accusation is a punishable crime in itself.
So much of this provides an echo to the opening statement on the website of FACT, the excellent campaigning organisation which represents the interests of “Falsely Accused Carers and Teachers” over here:
If you have just been wrongfully accused read ‘I have been falsely accused, what happens next?’ and phone our HELPLINE on 0843 289 2016
FACT abhors abuse of children and adults whether sexual, physical or emotional. However not all allegations of abuse are true, wrongful allegations may be made for a variety of reasons and are not necessarily made maliciously. Wrongful allegations have a devastating effect on the wrongfully accused and their families. The accused can lose their reputations, their careers, their health and even their freedom. When an allegation of child abuse is made there is always a victim, either the complainant or the accused.
‘I have never visited the GP so many times in my life. I went into a state of shock for some weeks after my arrest… I suffered from depression, suicidal thoughts, self-harming, fear, immense anger against the police and my accuser and anger at the lack of support from anyone in authority … I suffer stress-related physical pain and shaking. Nightmares. I was very close to suicide on at least three occasions.’
From The Impact of Being Wrongly Accused of Abuse in Occupations of Trust: Victims’ Voices
People like this must be confident that we have a criminal justice system which will protect them from being convicted of offences they never committed. Many of them do not have that confidence today.