By Stuart Morris, from insidetime issue November 2010
Stuart Morris looks at the nightmare of being falsely accused
Imagine a scenario which starts with the ringing of the door bell, you answer and there stands a policeman. ‘May I come in?’ He says, seriously, and you allow him to enter with his colleague in tow. That could be the end of your life as you know it. Someone – a relative, an old flame, or even a stranger – has accused you of committing one of the most horrendous of crimes- rape-and says that it happened many years ago.
If you are guilty then I hope they lock you up and throw away the key. But what if you are not? What if you are actually the victim here and someone has made a false allegation against you? I’ll tell you what you will do – you will PANIC! The way the law deals with rape cases since the introduction of Sections 32 and 33 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 means the scales of justice have been tipped against you. Unless you can prove your innocence you WILL be convicted. The Prosecution don’t even have to try.
The laws of our land are supposed to be a framework of guiding lights that shine upon the innocent and leave the guilty in the dark. Yet since 1994, one by one these lights have been switched off and the innocent now stand in shadow, vulnerable to attack. This has been caused by successive governments driving through law after law, with the purpose of increasing convictions. Not even ensuring convictions of the guilty, just ensuring more and more innocent people are being wrongfully convicted and punished for crimes they never committed.
Yet the Home Office are well aware that there are innocent people rotting in our penal system, and are fairly clued up on why they are there. When the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act was introduced in 1996, its aim was to – ‘effectively bring about acquittal of the innocent and conviction of the guilty, whilst ensuring efficiency in focussing on key issues at trial and fairness towards all those affected’. This is the law that demands a statement from the defendant before any extra disclosures are made which might undermine the prosecution case. In reality this is the law that allows the prosecution to withhold or misplace any sensitive evidence that may damage their case.
After this law had been in force for a few years the Home Office commissioned a research study and found that 88% of barristers, 87% of defence solicitors, and 61% of judges were dissatisfied with the way it was operating. They stated that relevant information continues to exist in many locations without ever becoming part of a prosecution file (Naylor L.A. 2004).
Prior to 2004, the Home Office stated in its own bulletin that it was aware of 3000 wrongfully convicted people being put in prison every year, while allowing the guilty to walk free (Naylor L.A 2004). No, that is not a typo, it is 3000 real people, most with families, partners, and children. Tens of thousands of people affected by this injustice, and yet the government allows it to continue to make their conviction statistics look good.
Thousands of families are being ripped apart by this growing culture of compensation for false allegations, although in some cases the accuser is not always to blame for this. Your accuser could be the victim of malpractice by a psychotherapist, who can call themselves ‘qualified’ after only a 20 week correspondence course, and work in this field of therapy which has no regulations. In comparison a psychology degree will take years to acquire.
Psychotherapists, who often appear as expert witnesses, are sometimes the creators of false memories that surface during therapy. Chris French, a professor of psychology, wrote in The Guardian newspaper in March 2010 – ‘Because there is no ‘buried memory’ to recover, the search for repressed memories can itself lead to the mental construction of completely false scenarios. Indeed the claims upon which this therapeutic approach is based is not supported by any convincing scientific evidence. Yet the damage that can be done to patients and their families by such psychotherapists is well documented’.
In America in the 1990s, hundreds of ex patients sued their therapists on the grounds of malpractice, because they had implanted false memories of abuse and destroyed family relationships. Not all false allegations come via implanted memories; some are made purely as a way of revenge or even for financial gain. But until false allegations are proved to be false they are accepted as fact and allowed to be put forward as the only evidence necessary to gain a prosecution in a criminal trial. The extremely low level of proof required in cases of a sexual nature, in contrast with all other offences, is surely questionable. Why aren’t all crimes subject to the same level of proof?
As many high profile people, like football and showbiz types, seem able to prove that any allegations made against them are false, is down to the fact that they can afford to pay for a decent legal team. But those who rely on a state funded defence team are unable to do the same. This proves that there are two different levels of justice – one for the rich and another for the poor.
The legal profession are doing nothing to fight this injustice, and all the small groups pushing for change seem to be following personal agendas. What is needed is for all of these groups and professionals to join forces, which might raise a shout so loud that the government realise that mistakes in our legislation must be remedied now! Until then 60 more people every week will be wrongfully imprisoned, some of them for historic offences that never happened.
Finally, if you find yourself to be one of the lucky innocents who can prove your innocence before charges are brought against you then you may think that would be the end of the matter? WRONG! If anyone requests a CRB check on you it will show that you were arrested for ‘an offence’ but that there was ‘insufficient evidence’, so ‘no further action’ was taken. It appears that the word ‘innocent’ does not compute on the Police National Computer. So, as soon as an accusation is made it could be the end of your life as you know it.