At The F-Word Blog, there is a comparison of the Guardian’s vs the BBC/Newsbeat coverage of Keir Starmer QC’s publication of a study by the Crown Prosecution Service on the prevalence of false rape claims. While both stories report “both sides”, the BBC’s writers went with the headline “False rape claims ‘devastating’ say wrongly accused”, whereas the Guardian went with the rather more balanced, “Rape investigations ‘undermined by belief that false accusations are rife'”.
It’s worth noting that the Guardian quotes Starmer on the type of emotive remarks by the BBC’s headline writers:
Because people recognise the devastating effect of false allegations and because they perceive there to be more false allegations than this report would suggest there are, arguably they adopt a cautious approach. If [that] leads to a more rigorous test being applied when people report rape or domestic violence, then that can lead to injustice for victims.
But I wanted to drill deeper into the numbers, so I went and looked at the report itself (linkis the .pdf file). The writers again felt the need to hedge their work about with talk in the introduction about the “very damaging” effects of false allegations, and assure their readers that, “those falsely accused should feel confident that the Crown Prosecution Service will prosecute these cases wherever there is sufficient evidence and it is in the public interest to do so.”
I have frequently seen “Men’s Rights Activist” types (MRAs) use the low conviction rate for rape to claim that most rape allegations are false (usually in the form, “It wasn’t rape unless a court says it was” and often with the implied or explicitly stated logic, “Therefore she made it up”). In January, the Independnet newspaper ran `an article about the attrition rate in rape cases, and Information Is Beautiful created an infographic using similar data in February.
If the MRA claim is justified, then there would have to be the following conclusion:
Out of around 16 thousand cases, over 13 thousand false allegations a year are made (and that’s just the ones that the CPS couldn’t bring a rape case to court, let alone the ones where the jury failed to convict). (That is to say, of 16,000 or so reported rapes, only 2,900 or so reach the courts.) And yet, the CPS found only 121 cases of false allegation to investigate in the course of 17 months, of whom only 35 were prosecuted. Scaling that down to the average in a year, that looks like roughly 86 and 24 (which is where we get the headline figure of “2 a month”).
Now, the Independent article estimates that, “between 54,000 and 85,000 women were raped over the year.” Meaning that between 60% and 81% never reported the crime to the police. Compare that to the figures above. Then we might say that, out of 13,000 victims, less than 1% reported the crime. But that’s not accurate. The police are already aware of the accusation that, according to the MRA logic, must be a false one! From the links provided, you can already work out the reasons for the gap, and it’s not what the MRAs seem to think.
The CPS report gives figures for investigations and prosecutions for false allegations, but only for prosecutions of rape cases. Using the figure from the Information Is Beautiful infographic that 18% of investigations of rape lead to prosecution, that gives an estimated 30,000 investigations from the reports figure of 5,651 prosecutions.
Out of 30,000 investigations for rape, 121 investigations of false allegations of rape emerged, or about 0.4% (You could throw in the extra 11 investigations that involved domestic violence and rape combined, but it wouldn’t shift the percentage much!)
The final death blow for the MRA logic comes from the report itself:
There was some evidence of investigators (and to a lesser extent) prosecutors reaching the conclusion that if no prosecution could take place for rape or domestic violence then this demonstrated that the allegation was false. But this is to confuse where the burden and standard of proof lies.
In other words, rapes cases that don’t come to trial are not instances of “false allegation”, but are rather more likely to be instances of a rapist getting away with it (where “rather more” is in the region of “200-300 times more”, going by the comparison of investigations of rape vs false allegation). Bear in mind that the standard for prosecuting false allegations is quite light:
Where the prosecution case [to prosecute for “perverting the course of justice”] is that a false allegation has been made, all that is required is that the person making the false allegation intended that it should be taken seriously by the police. It is not necessary to prove that she/he intended that anyone should actually be arrested. Similarly, to prove an offence of wasting police time in this context, the prosecution are required to establish that the suspect knowingly made a false complaint to the police.
And only 35 cases met that standard. With that sort of statistic, on that sort of requirement, the MRA claims become frankly ridiculous.
A couple of other things leapt out at me about the report. The first was the age range of those investigated for making false allegations (“suspects” in the report’s terminology). For allegations of rape, 62 out of 121 of those investigated were under 21 (51% of the total); 26 of these were under 18 (21% of the total) and 10 of those were under 16 (8% of the total). The report discusses many ways in which indicators of vulnerability (such as under age drinking or mental health issues) seemed to be related to instances they investigated.
Related to this was another factor I wanted to look at. This is that 38% of investigated cases (for rape or domestic abuse) were not initially reported by the suspect, but by a third party contacting the police. This rises to 46% (56 out of 121) for instances of rape. More than half of those under 18 did not make the first contact with the police. The report adds, “It was a feature of these cases that the suspect later reported that the whole thing had spiralled out of control and he or she had felt unable to stop the investigation.” (It’s not clear to me from context whether this refers to all the cases where someone else made the contact, or whether it refers specifically to those under 18.)
The impression that this gives is that it is quite rare for a false allegation to be made out of malice. Vulnerability, such as a sense of “loss of control” over the process, or being in a dependent or subordinate position relative to those around them (e.g. through age or other factors), or needing to “save face” with peers, authority figures, or themselves (the report presents a case study of a young man alleging rape by a man, “he had told his mother he had been raped, because he had felt guilt, shame and depression about his sexuality.”)
A point raised by the report that supports this impression was that sometimes an incident was recorded as an allegation of rape, when in fact the suspect had not made any clear statement to that effect, noting that the factors of age and third-party reporting made this more likely. It gives an example:
For example, in one case, when making the allegation, the suspect had
repeatedly stated that she “felt” that she had been “taken advantage of” and that she could not remember precisely what had happened to her because she had been drinking alcohol. On close examination it could be seen that she had not explicitly alleged rape and what she was saying may have accurately reflected her state of mind; therefore there was nothing to show that what she was saying was untrue.
(I want to say that, while the above cannot constitute an allegation of rape as far as criminal proceedings are concerned, it’s most definitely not acceptable that the person in question was left feeling that way, and that the person who had that effect on her was very much morally culpable, even though no crime had been committed.)
The report makes one more very important comment about vulnerability, that I shall present without comment:
There has been a great deal of work undertaken in relation to challenging the myths and stereotypes about what constitutes rape, as to who can be a victim and how victims behave. An example of a myth is that a person is unlikely to have been the victim of a sexual offence on more than one occasion. In fact, research indicates that a person may be targeted precisely because s/he is vulnerable, and as a result there is every possibility that s/he may have been a victim of rape or other violence on more than one occasion.
In some of the cases referred to the DPP, investigators and prosecutors sought to rely on a previous complaint of rape or domestic violence which had not resulted in a prosecution as evidence that the allegation under consideration was false. There was a lack of appreciation that the earlier allegation had no probative value unless it could be shown not merely that there had been no prosecution but that it was also provably false.
In addition, if the victim had made a number of other complaints in the past there was evidence that this became a self-fulfilling prophecy: each time she complained, investigators or prosecutors would see that this was perhaps the third or fourth time she had reported that she had been raped and would regard that as evidence of unreliability, thereby ensuring that the present allegation would not be prosecuted either.