By Dr Michael Naughton, Reader in Sociology and Law (University of Bristol Law School and School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS)).
I have written previously about why language matters. Put simply, language matters because it is the words or phrases that we use that shapes and reflects how we think, feel and act as individuals in response to social and/or legal issues such as alleged sexual offences or alleged false allegations, which is the subject of this article. With this in mind, in evaluating the intended provocation in the title, ‘What the police and prosecution were told to believe all victims of false allegations?’, it is crucial that the key terms are clearly defined at the start of any analysis.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines ‘believe’ as: ‘to accept something to be true without proof; to hold an opinion about something; to think something’.
It defines ‘victim’ as a ‘person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action.’
With these definitions at the forefront of your mind, I ask readers to try to think themselves into the shoes of police officers with the job of investigating alleged sexual offences or individuals working for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) working on the task of deciding whether alleged sexual offences should or should not progress to the prosecution stage and think about the following question. (There may even be some police officers or Crown prosecutors reading this article who may also wish to ask themselves the following question if they haven’t asked themselves it already).
If you were told that you had to believe all alleged victims of false allegations of rape, child sexual abuse (CSA) and other alleged sexual offences; to work on the basis that the person making the allegation against them was false, was telling a lie; that the person claiming to be a victim of a false allegation of a sexual offence was telling the truth; and, to not look for any evidence at all that may challenge their claims of innocence, would you find the situation acceptable?
My hunch is that many of us might feel that such a stance would be unacceptable as it would, inevitably, allow those who commit such appalling sexual offences, rapists and paedophiles, to evade justice. Such is the revulsion that most of us have for such offences.
Many of us might even refuse to work from such a problematic standpoint as to let such offenders escape justice might not be what we joined the police or the prosecution to do. We might think that we became police officers or prosecutors to get justice for victims of crime. But, what about the innocent victims of false allegations and wrongful conviction and/or imprisonment? Do they not count too? Would not proving a false allegation also be obtaining justice for a victim of the crime of perverting the course of justice? Would this not fit squarely with why police officers and prosecutors signed up for the roles that they play? If not, why not?
Despite this, we currently live under a criminal justice system regime that reverses this proposition, and have done for the last 10 years.
It is as though the fear of the possibility of a rapist or a paedophile escaping justice has resulted in a system that has been structured as an extreme form of crime control under which innocent victims of false allegations and wrongful conviction and imprisonment don’t matter; are mere collateral damage in the war against rapists, child sexual abusers and other sexual offenders and predators.
Yet, most of us do not seem to have the same reaction to alleged murders or burglaries or fraud cases, where the presumption of innocence remains firmly intact and there is no campaign for it to be not only removed, but inverted, like it has been in the area of alleged sexual offences.
Indeed, I have also written previously about how the roots of the ‘believe the victim’ ideology can be traced to the moral panic induced by Jimmy Savile Affair and how it caused a paradigm shift in police and prosecution responses to alleged sexual offences that has inverted the presumption of innocence and made it more likely that innocent victims will be falsely accused and wrongly convicted and imprisoned.
Totally disregarding the need to prove allegations of sexual offences, police officers and prosecutors have been instructed for the last decade to believe those who claim to be victims of sexual offences without the need for proof and to not look for evidence that might undermine such a stance either, which doesn’t seem to bother them at all.
‘…when an allegation is received, police should [now] believe this account and record it as a crime.’
As for prosecutors, they are required under the terms of the ‘Guidelines on Prosecuting Cases of Child Sexual Abuse’ to work on the basis that those making allegations are victims and 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’.
I wonder why the criminal justice system is so slanted in the direction of working on the basis that all those who allege that they are victims of sexual offences are to be believed as telling the truth, which, presumably, police and prosecutors, as thinking human beings, also know, however deep down, is problematic?
I also wonder why police officers and those working for the CPS on such cases, as well as other agencies that make up the criminal justice system, do not refuse to work under such dictates in the way that they might if they were told to ‘believe all victims of false allegations’?
Is it because the moral panic around sexual offences has been so successful that they want to believe that those making allegations of sexual offences are telling the truth and that evidence in support of the allegation is, therefore, not required; that evidence is surplus to requirements?
Is it because they don’t care if innocent victims of false allegations of sexual offences are wrongly convicted; that they regard them with complete moral indifference; as ‘other’; and that they care not for the damage that false allegations and wrongful convictions cause to both direct and indirect victims either? Could police officers and prosecutors really be so cold-hearted and callous?
Is it because they care only for the salaries that they receive for the work that they do and operate akin to cybermen and women who simply do what they are told to do and do not question their instructions? We know that many are concerned about the knock-on effects of losing their jobs in terms of keeping roofs over heads, food on the table, clothes on backs and shoes on feet. Could this be a source of pressure that causes police officers and prosecutors to obey such apparently problematic rules and procedures? If it is, or if this kind of pressure plays a part, what does that say about how police officers and prosecutors who simply follow unjust laws and policies without question view their fellows who are harmed and damaged in numerous ways when false allegations occur – children, women and men? What does it say about their humanity?
Is it because it is not they or their families who are falsely accused or wrongly convicted and/or imprisoned for an alleged crime that they did not commit? If this is a factor, I can report that my colleagues and I working in the field of false allegations and miscarriages of justice are regularly contacted by police officers and others working in the criminal justice system who claim that they are innocent victims of false allegations and/or wrongful convictions and if you do think that it could never happen to you or your family members then you might turn out to be wrong.
Whatever the reason, to disregard the presumption of innocence in the area of alleged sexual offences and to believe allegations of sexual offences without question is not only immoral and irrational, it undermines the continued legitimacy of the agencies of the criminal justice system in the area of alleged sexual offences that work under the ‘believe the victim’ policy. It represents an egregious public wrong that history shows is unacceptable to the general population when false allegations and wrongful convictions come to public attention – think, for instance, of the recent case of Andy Malkinson who was falsely accused and wrongly convicted and imprisoned for an alleged rape that he did not commit and the fallout since.
To return to the question of whether we should believe all victims of false allegations, a simple search of ‘false allegations’ on the internet generates a plethora of genuine false allegation cases, including the following recent cases where innocent victims were falsely accused:
- In September 2023, Tahereh Ghorbanlou was convicted for attempting to blackmail an innocent man she met on a dating app who she threatened to falsely accuse of rape if he did not pay her £5,000. She was sentenced to two years and three months imprisonment.
- In July 2023, Emma Heys was convicted of three counts of perverting course of justice after sending herself threatening letters making false statements to the police in a bid to frame her ex-husband for stalking. She was sentenced to 28 month imprisonment.
- In May 2023, Police Constable Amanda Aston was found guilty of two counts of perverting the course of justice and one count of fraud by false representation. Aston had lied about being a victim of domestic abuse which led to her colleague, former Sergeant Matt Taylor, being jailed for alleged offences that he did not commit. She was given a 21-month prison sentence, suspended for two years. She was also ordered to carry out 100 hours of unpaid work.
- In March 2023, Eleanor Williams was convicted of nine counts of perverting the course of justice and sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in prison after making a series of false rape allegations. It was reported at the time that three men who were falsely accused of rape by Williams said they tried to kill themselves as a result of her lies, one of whom was twice sectioned in a psychiatric unit.
Reflecting on these cases and many others like them that could have been cited, perhaps the title of this article may not be as provocative as I first thought it might be.