Keir Starmer's report on rape allegations tells us more about their nature than their number

The CPS review of false rape allegations doesn't offer any clear answers.

 

The Director of Public Prosecution, Keir Starmer, is understandably keen to dispel the damaging myths and stereotypes which are associated with rape cases. “One such misplaced belief is that false allegations of rape and domestic violence are rife," he says.

It is probably true that the prevalence of such cases is often overestimated. Most credible research places false allegations at between about two and ten per cent of all complaints, the difference between a small minority and a tiny minority. However, the new review does not, and indeed cannot contribute any kind of estimate of the extent of false allegations, its methodology does not allow it.        

The CPS research reviewed 132 suspected false rape allegations where the evidence of fabrication was strong enough to require a decision on pressing charges, either for perverting the course of justice or wasting police time. (There were also 27 cases relating to non-sexual domestic violence - for simplicity, I’m excluding them from this discussion). Only 35 suspected false rape allegations proceeded to court. The 132 cases represent less than one per cent of reported rapes.  

Despite headline claims that false allegations are “few and far between,” these are only the cases where the evidence of falsification is strong. There were more than 16,000 reported rapes last year, of which 82 per cent did not go to trial. Proving a rape allegation to be false is no easier than proving one to be true, and for every case where there is enough evidence of fabrication to justify possible prosecution, there must be others where the allegation is false, but there is little or no evidence to prove that. How many such cases might there be? It is impossible to know for sure and this study makes no attempt to find out. Anyone who states confidently what the total number might be is speaking from faith, not evidence.

So the CPS review provides no clean, simple answers about the extent of false rape allegations. It is nonetheless valuable for the light it shines on the gruesome complexities. The case studies do not portray spiteful, malicious characters bent on blackmail or revenge, but a ragged bag of sorry stories. Around half are under 21, many have mental health issues or learning difficulties. False reports from over a third of the younger suspects were made by parents or partners, after a domestic lie spiralled out of control.

The cases echo a messy reality described in a recent paper in the British Journal of Criminology which observed that there is not even consensus on what is meant by a false allegation. Drawing upon interviews with police and prosecutors, Dr Candida Saunders distinguished between reports of rapes which had not occurred (false complaints) and reports of rape which contain falsehoods (false accounts).

False complaints, her interviewees suggested, are actually very rare, but reports which contain falsehoods are described as being common. A typical example might be a complainant who told police that she had only had one or two vodkas before tests revealed her to be eight times over the driving limit. Others lie as to the extent of their prior relationship with the alleged attacker, or the circumstances by which they came to be alone together. Such false accounts do not mean the complainant has not been raped, in most cases the assumption is that s/he has been, but they do damage the credibility of a witness and undermine prospects of successful prosecution. Saunders argues that many presumed false reports may actually be false accounts. If there is to be better understanding of the nature of false allegations among police, prosecutors and the public, this is the area where it should begin.

What do we know for sure about false allegations? Very little, beyond the fact that they do sometimes occur. In a judicial system that requires conviction beyond all reasonable doubt it is almost academic whether the proportion is one in a hundred or one in ten - each case must be judged on its merits. It is important to note that 84 per cent of the cases studied by CPS involved a specific, named individual as the alleged assailant. Each could be expected to suffer great distress as a result, and false allegations can and do destroy lives. The CPS is right, I believe, to ignore pleas from some feminist groups to end all prosecutions for false rape allegations which would leave victims of a serious crime without protection or justice. The CPS is also right to tend against prosecution in all but the most egregious cases, given the complexities and possibilities for miscarriage of justice involved.            

There is another sense in which this debate is academic. Recent IPCC investigations into the Met’s Sapphire Unit revealed an appalling record of incompetence, inadequacy and occasional outright corruption in the investigation of rape complaints, and it would be dangerous to assume this is restricted to London. The significance of false allegations must be marginal when so many reports were barely investigated at all, where evidence wasn’t collected or was actively destroyed. Ensuring that our police forces are willing and able to investigate the cases before them with honesty, competence and commitment would be the best protection for victims of rape and of false allegations alike. 

Keir Starmer, Director of Public Prosecutions. Photograph: Getty Images
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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times