This week we’re responding to a consultation by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) on charging women who retract allegations of domestic violence or rape with perversion of the course of justice.
There are no statistics on how many people in the UK falsely report rape or domestic violence each year. When Baroness Stern released her review of rape reporting last March, she highlighted the lack of accurate data on false rape allegations as a concern. The Telegraph, in the spirit of irresponsible journalism, reported this as “as many as one in ten allegations could be false”.
Much less has been said about women who drop allegations which are actually true. Yet we know from our work with survivors of domestic violence and rape that this happens often. There are many reasons for this. Women may feel uncertain about how they will cope with going to court or may have been treated poorly by the police. They may also be afraid of further violence or of losing their children or their home.
Last year a woman was convicted after she retracted rape allegations against her husband under severe pressure from his family. She was sentenced to eight months in prison. Her husband- who had allegedly raped her five times – took custody of their kids.
In response to the outcry surrounding that case, the CPS recently produced guidance for prosecutors on what to do if a woman retracts an allegation of domestic violence or rape. The CPS claims that the new guidance will “protect individuals who retract a truthful allegation as a result of pressure or fear of violence”. Yet having seen a draft, IKWRO is not so sure.
The guidance as it stands leaves too much to the discretion of individual prosecutors. For example, where a woman reports a crime which genuinely occurred, but later retracts her allegation saying that it was false, and then retracts the retraction (known as a double retraction) prosecutors are simply told to ‘give very careful consideration’ before deciding to prosecute. This contradicts statements elsewhere in the document warning that where there is any possibility that the original allegation was true a prosecution should not go ahead.
The guidance is also silent on the issue of how or when a woman should be informed that she could be charged. Should police warn women that this could happen when they make their original complaint? Should they do it while a woman is in the process of retracting her allegation, or should they wait until after proper consideration has been given to whether there is any likelihood that her original allegation might be true? The very threat of charges will put more stress onto women who have already experienced rape or domestic violence, yet the guidance says nothing on this all important issue.
Unfortunately, police officers don’t always treat women who have been raped or abused appropriately. Countless examples of women simply not being believed – think Banaz Mahmod or the John Worboys case – already deter many victims from reporting crimes in the first place. And now, what’s to say that the police, when deciding whether to charge someone with perversion of the course of justice, will not make the same assumptions as they did in those cases? The consequences could be dire.
The criminal justice system needs to wake up to how hard it is for women to report rape or domestic violence and to go through with court hearings and prosecution, and needs to make it absolutely clear that in cases where there is any likelihood that the original allegations were true (including double retraction cases) no woman should ever be charged or face the threat of going to court. Our response to the CPS consultation will be sending this message loud and clear.