by Michael Naughton, the Law School, University of Bristol
Introduction: The competing camps on alleged sexual offences
Our existing contemporary moment can be characterised in terms of an increasingly divided society along strict adversarial lines. Whether it be the recent public conversations about Brexit, COVID vaccinations, climate change or mere routine day-to-day political debates, there seems little or no place for balance, nuance, nor objectivity. Indeed, in whatever debate one cares to consider, the choice presented to us seems to be to simply pick a side where: ‘you are either with us or against us’; ‘in or out’; ‘one of us or one of them’; ‘a friend or an enemy’.
Nowhere is this clearer than the opposing camps that have formed in response to the highly emotive phenomenon of alleged sexual offences. I have written previously about alleged sexual offences (see Naughton, 2007; 2011a; 2019; 2024), noting how the opposing factions that have emerged in response to uncorroborated allegations of sexual offences, the justice for victims of sexual offences community versus the justice for victims of false allegations of sexual offences community, are engaged in a struggle for power for how the public view such allegations and how legislators and policy makers should respond to them.
In my research, I have always argued from the standpoint that true justice can only be achieved by attempts to get to the truth of alleged crimes; that the injustice and forms of harm caused to genuine victims of sexual abuse or assault and those experienced by genuine victims of false allegations of sexual offences are not mutually exclusive.
It is on this basis that I have contended that an objective approach to alleged sexual offences from the perspective of truth and justice will be as much concerned with the injustice and forms of harm caused to those falsely accused as it is with the injustice and harms caused to victims of sexual offences.
Put simply, to choose a side in response to such social phenomenon is problematical as one type of injustice or harm does not cancel out another form injustice or harm; a concern for one type of alleged victim does not mean that we should have no regard whatsoever for another kind of alleged victim.
Indeed, both victims of sexual offences and victims of false allegations of sexual offences experience an extensive array of forms of harm which they may never recover from. In terms of victims of sexual offences, it is estimated that around 20% of women will experience sexual assault, for instance, at some point in their life, the consequences of which can be devastating. This can include psychological trauma, physical and financial forms of harm, the effects of which can be experienced long after the original assault. Injury, unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and the breakdown of relationships are just some of the long-term impacts of sexual violence that persist well beyond the immediate aftermath of sexual assaults (see Watt et al, 2022).
On the other hand, false allegations of sexual offences can also destroy lives. It can ruin careers and reputations, and there can also be permanent and ongoing social stigma, psychological trauma and forms of cultural and financial harm to direct victims and their families when the label ‘sex offender’ is falsely applied (see Greene, 2011; Gambaccini, 2015; Warr, 2017). Moreover, when such allegations are falsely made, the ‘no smoke without fire’ discourse can conflate those who may be or are innocent with those who may have or did commit the offence (see Jones, 2011; Naughton and Tan, 2011: 70–71), which can be devastating for genuinely innocent victims and their families, as well as society as a whole in terms of the climate of suspicion and diminished trust that allegations of sexual offences can engender (Naughton, 2011a: i).
Despite the clarity of these simple facts, the opposing groups on uncorroborated allegations of sexual abuse or assault remain as divided as ever, with the combatants in the opposing camps seemingly unwilling or unable to consider that they may be supporting an alleged victim of either a sexual offence or a false allegation of a sexual offence who may not be truthful as they fight for discursive supremacy and the total annihilation of their competing tribe.
False Allegations Watch (FAW): Seeking justice from a position of truth
It is within this context that False Allegations Watch (FAW) has been established as the second Empowering the Innocent (ETI) subproject (see Empowering the Innocent (ETI)). To raise awareness of the causes and harmful consequences of false allegations of sexual offences with the aim of such activity acting as a precursor for wide ranging reforms, False Allegations Watch (FAW) features articles on a dedicated website (see False Allegations Watch (FAW)), which centre on alleged false allegations, charges or wrongful convictions for sexual offences. FAW also features articles on the wider context within which false allegations of sexual offences can occur, including the legislation, policies and/or cultures that can act to facilitate or enable such false allegations to be made.
In contrast to the existing opposing sides that have formed in response to allegations of sexual offences, however, False Allegations Watch (FAW) is not affiliated with a side in the debate, nor does it work from the mere belief that alleged victims of false allegations of sexual offences did or did not do the sexual offences that they were accused, charged or convicted for.
On the contrary, False Allegations Watch (FAW) neither assumes, nor works on the basis, that the alleged innocent victims of false allegations in the cases that feature on its website or in its wider public discourses are innocent victims of allegations, charges or alleged wrongful conviction and/or imprisonment. Rather, False Allegations Watch (FAW) was established because innocent victims of false allegations can be, and are, routinely wrongly accused, charged and/or convicted and imprisoned in England and Wales due to existing police and Crown Prosecution service (CPS) cultures, policies and/or failings.
False Allegations Watch (FAW), then, is concerned only with the truth of whether alleged innocent victims of false allegations did or did not commit the alleged sexual offence. Only through this approach can true justice prevail for genuine victims of alleged sexual offences and of false allegations and wrongful convictions, alike.
With this in mind, it seems important to highlight the Empowering the Innocent (ETI) ‘Disclaimer & Victim Statement’, which also features on the False Allegations Watch (FAW) website. It makes it clear that if it is found that an alleged innocent victim of wrongful conviction or false allegation of a sexual offence in a case featured by ETI is not innocent, ETI will cease involvement with the case and any information about the case will deleted from its websites, social media platforms and YouTube channel (see Empowering the Innocent (ETI)).
Erosion of safeguards against false allegations and wrongful convictions for alleged sexual offences
A major problem in the area of alleged sexual offences, which signals the need for False Allegations Watch (FAW), is the erosion of safeguards that were originally introduced into alleged sex offence trials with the aim of protecting innocent victims of false allegations from wrongful convictions.
Specifically, s. 32(1) of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 abolished the longstanding requirement on judges to issue a warning to juries when summing up the ‘dangers’ of convicting defendants charged with sexual offences on the uncorroborated testimony of alleged victims. This followed s. 34 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, which abrogated the requirement on judges to give a warning to juries about convicting an accused on the uncorroborated evidence of a child.
I have argued elsewhere (Naughton, 2013: 54-63), that these reforms meant that false allegations are now actually facilitated by a criminal justice system that allows uncorroborated witness testimonies to be admissible evidence in criminal trials, despite the inherent unreliability of such evidence.
Yet, as the appeal judgment in the cases of R v Henry; R v Manning noted, such a warning on uncorroborated allegations of sexual offences was, and still is, needed because false allegations are easily made but can be difficult or even impossible to disprove:
“[T]here is no magic formula or mumbo jumbo required in a direction relating to corroboration. What the judge has to do is to use clear and simple language that will without any doubt convey to the jury that in cases of alleged sexual offences it is really dangerous to convict on the evidence … alone. This is dangerous because human experience has shown that … [a] … false story … is very easy to fabricate, but extremely difficult to refute. Such stories are fabricated for all sorts of reasons, which I need not now enumerate, and sometimes for no reason at all” (R v Henry; R v Manning, paragraph 153).
It seems clear that the issuing of a warning of the inherent dangers of uncorroborated witness testimony, or oral evidence from ‘suspect witnesses’, as they were formerly called (see Law Commission, 1991: 23), was explicitly intended to provide defendants with a fair trial and to ward against the possibility of wrongful convictions.
The evidence from successful appeal cases in the early post-corroboration-warning era is equally clear. The abolition of the warning on uncorroborated oral evidence has contributed to wrongful convictions that were caused by individuals who intentionally give false testimony of alleged sexual offences that is not supported by any other form of evidence.
Warren Blackwell, for instance, was convicted at Northampton Crown Court in October 1999 for a sexual offence that he was alleged to have committed in the early hours of New Year’s Day that year. He served almost three and a half years in prison for the offence. It was not disputed at trial that Blackwell and his complainant had met earlier in the evening at a party at a village social club and that during the evening they had played a game of pool against each other. At around 12.50 a.m. the complainant alleged that she went outside for some fresh air and that she was grabbed from behind by Blackwell who forced her to a grass area where he repeatedly punched and indecently assaulted her (see R v Blackwell). His conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) (CACD) in September 2006, however, following a review by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC). It discovered that his accuser, who had changed her name at least eight times and had a propensity for self-harm, had made at least five other false allegations of sexual and physical assault to police in three separate forces; that she was married twice and made false allegations against both husbands, one of whom was a policeman; had once accused her own father of sexual assault, but police concluded she had made it up; and had accused a boy of rape when she was a teenager, only for a doctor to discover she was still a virgin (see Greenhill, 2006; R v Blackwell).
In another pertinent case, Roger Beardmore was convicted of the rape and attempted rape of a girl between the ages of 3 and 6 years old at Stafford Crown Court in March 1998 that allegedly occurred in the early 1990s. In December 2001, however, his conviction was overturned after he had served three years in prison when the complainant, who was aged 14 at the time, admitted that she lied to gain her mother’s attention. She said that she retracted her allegations because she wanted to correct a wrong which had been ‘keeping her awake, crying all night’ (see Peek, 2001).
Further erosion of safeguards in the post-Savile era
Such miscarriages of justice (I could have cited many others) provide strong evidence that the corroboration warning should not have been abolished and that it should be reinstated. Despite this, and also with the stated political aim to convict more sex offenders, still further major reforms have been implemented in response to criticism of past failures by police and prosecutors to properly investigate allegations of CSA in the pre-Savile era and bring offenders to justice (see BBC News, 2017).
This has seen a paradigm shift in police and prosecution responses to allegations of sexual abuse and assault making it even more likely that innocent victims will be falsely accused and wrongly convicted. From a position of questioning the veracity of allegations as a safeguard to protect potentially innocent individuals from false allegations and wrongful conviction, the default position now is to believe alleged victims; moreover, to see complainants as victims at the point of complaint, unless there is compelling evidence to the contrary.
As this relates, specifically, to police practise, the College of Policing, the body which sets standards and guidance for police in England and Wales, emphasized that: ‘…when an allegation is received, police should [now] believe this account and record it as a crime (College of Policing, 2016 cited Naughton, 2019: 465; see also BBC News, 2016).
Similarly, prosecutors are now mandated under the terms of the new ‘Guidelines on Prosecuting Cases of Child Sexual Abuse’ issued in 2013 (and revised in 2017) to work on the basis that those making allegations are victims, with prosecutors instructed to ‘guard against looking for “corroboration” of the victim’s account or using the lack of “corroboration” as a reason not to proceed with a case’ (Crown Prosecution Service, 2017: paragraph 55).
These reforms, together with the abolition of the corroboration warning, make false allegations and wrongful conviction more likely. They also undermine the basic right for those accused of crimes to be presumed innocent, which is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and is enacted domestically in the UK by the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) (for a more extensive critique of the so-called presumption of innocence see Naughton, 2011b).
The crucial issue here is that justice is not intended to be a political game to be measured by the number of convictions for any particular alleged criminal offence. Rather, it is supposed to be a process that genuinely seeks the truth of whether an individual suspect or accused did or did not commit the alleged criminal offence that they are accused of committing.
Contra this, the erosion of the trial safeguards aimed at preventing wrongful convictions following allegations of sexual offences were for political, rather than legal, reasons, as was the inversion of the presumption of innocence in terms of police and CPS practice which sees them now required to simply believe the (alleged) victim.
Moreover, making it easier to convict alleged sex offenders, ‘to get the numbers up‘, by treating those accused of sex offences differently from those accused of other alleged crimes, unbalances the scales of justice against those accused. The inevitable outcome is that innocent victims will be falsely accused and wrongly convicted and imprisoned for crimes that they did not commit, or which did not occur (see Naughton, 2003).
It is in this context that it not unreasonable to say that the criminal justice process has been corrupted to such an extent in regard to alleged sexual offences that suspects, and defendants are now regarded as guilty until they are proven innocent.
I think it is apt to conclude with some examples of cases of false allegations of sexual offences that have been reported in the media over recent months. These cases further evidence the propensity of false allegations of sexual offences under the existing criminal justice system regime and the need for False Allegations Watch (FAW) and its work in highlighting and challenging this problematic reality:
- In October 2022, Sharon Taylor was also ordered to complete 30 days rehabilitation and given a restraining order, banning her from contacting her husband, David, for making false rape claims against him following the collapse of their 21-year marriage (see Blake, 2022).
- Also in October 2022, Cathy Richardson was jailed for five years after it was revealed she had lied when she claimed she had been raped numerous times by two different men (ITV News, 2022).
- In July 2022, Jade Wass was jailed for two years for falsely claiming that her blind neighbour had raped her (Phillips, 2022).
- In April 2022, Chantelle Clarke was given a 12-month suspended prison sentence for making a false allegation of rape against a vulnerable adult she knew from their time attending college together (Toner, 2022).
- In March 2022, Tina Williamson was jailed for more than three years for a false rape allegation, which the judge said was a crime that struck at the foundation of the criminal justice system and undermined genuine victims (Payne, 2022).