Incidents of sexual assault have been widely publicised in the media following a number of high-profile cases, including that of Kings Cross nightclub heir Luke Lazarus.
Data published in 2014 indicates that Australia has a huge problem with sexual assault – with 1 in 5 Australian women, and 1 in 20 men, reporting experiencing some form of sexual violence since turning 15.
These alarming figures are far above the global average – 1 in 14 women worldwide reporting being sexually assaulted at some stage in their life.
Statistics also show that 93% of offenders are male, indicating that this is largely a crime perpetrated by men.
But while there’s no denying that Australia – and indeed the world – has a long way to go when it comes to keeping women safe from unwanted sexual encounters, there have been many occasions where women have falsely report being sexually assaulted.
Just how many women file false sexual assault reports each year is unknown.
The vast disparity between these statistics can be attributed to several factors.
For one, it is almost impossible to properly estimate the number of false reports as there is no single definition of what constitutes a ‘false accusation.’
If the formulation of the NSW Crimes Act is applied, an accusation is ‘false’ where it is made by a person who knows that it is untrue, with the intention of instigating a criminal investigation against another person.
However, law enforcement agencies sometimes group these cases together with ‘unfounded’ sexual assault matters, including those which cannot be proved due to a lack of evidence, where the complaint is discredited by other evidence, or where the complainant later retracts their statement.
These outcomes are not necessarily the result of an intentionally false accusation by the complainant, but they can certainly cloud statistics, making it difficult to accurately estimate the number of complaints that are untrue.
Why Do People Lie About Sexual Assault?
Skeptics may wonder why a person would ever be make a false sexual assault report.
Besides being dishonest, unfounded accusations can have a permanent and destructive impact upon the unfortunate subject’s reputation – and, where they are accepted in court, the potential to put an innocent person behind bars for many years.
So given the harmful consequences of making a false complaint, why would anyone lie about sexual assault at all?
Numerous cases which have been uncovered and investigated over the years show that people may lie for any number of reasons.
In one English case, a woman who had had an affair with another man made claims to police that she had been kidnapped and forcibly raped – simply to cover up her infidelity.
The man who she had slept with was later arrested and detained by police, before the truth came out and the woman was charged with perverting the course of justice.
Other cases may be even more complex – jealous ex-partners may file false reports for revenge, or in an attempt to sway bitter custody disputes over children in their favour.
In other instances, people may suffer from mental health issues that lead them to concoct stories in a bid to attract attention. Last year, 21-year-old Katherine Bennett was sentenced to 32 days in prison, followed by 180 days of home supervision after she was found to have lied about a brutal kidnapping and rape.
According to news reports, Ms Bennett accused a 25-year-old man of luring her to a grocery store carpark before kidnapping her and taking her back to his home. She alleged that he then held her captive overnight and sexually assaulted her.
The man was arrested and imprisoned, before a court cleared him of all charges.
Ms Bennett’s lawyer argued that she suffered from depression and obsessive compulsive disorder, and that her actions were influence by these conditions, as well as complications from her psychiatric medication.
Despite being cleared of any wrongdoing, the man who was the subject of the false accusations has suffered irreparable damage to his reputation and lost his job as a national guardsman.
I have personally represented many clients in cases where it quickly became abundantly clear that the complainant had made a false sexual assault claim.
In one recent case, my 21 year-old male client had been accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old female in a Western Sydney carpark, causing her to fall pregnant.
In her statement, the complainant said many things that were demonstrated to be false: including that she had only met my client once previously and that they were not in a relationship.
I was easily able to show that the complainant was lying about both of those things by producing photographs and obtaining witness statements. The pair had, in fact, been in an intimate relationship for over 4 months.
I also attended and videotaped the scene of the alleged incident, which was surrounded by unit blocks. It was highly unlikely that the described event could have occurred in the location during daylight hours as alleged, given that it was directly visible to more than 60 units.
It quickly became apparent that the complainant – pregnant and living with her parents – had made the complaint to cover up the fact that she had been promiscuous.
Fortunately for my client, the charges were ultimately dropped – but not before damage was done to his reputation. The complainant was never charged with an offence – it being against police and DPP policy to prosecute complainants in sexual assault cases.
I have had many other cases like this one, and I must stress the importance of criminal lawyers fighting the have the charges dropped from the start – rather than waiting a year or two for the case to reach a defended hearing or jury trial.
What Happens to Those Who Are Found Guilty of Lying?
Although police and the DPP rarely prosecute false complainants, they certainly have the means to do so.
In New South Wales, a person who is found to have lied to authorities about a sexual assault may face heavy penalties under the Crimes Act 1900 (the Act).
Section 314 of the Act contains the offence of ‘false accusations’, which prescribes a maximum penalty of 7 years imprisonment for anyone that makes an accusation with the intention of subjecting another person to an investigation for a criminal offence, knowing that the person is truly innocent.
Section 315 of the same Act imposes up to 7 years imprisonment for anyone who hinders an investigation – including by maintaining false statements in relation to a criminal investigation.
In serious cases, this kind of conduct can even amount to the offence of ‘perverting the course of justice’ under section 319 of the Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment.
A person may be charged with perverting the course of justice where they fabricate evidence which interferes with justice being done – including making false statements to police.
And a person may be charged with perjury under section 327 of the Act where they knowingly make false statements whilst under oath in court, which may include false evidence that a sexual assault occurred.
The Big Picture
In light of the above discussion, it’s important to bear in mind that sexual assault is a complex and multifaceted issue.
Besides potentially incriminating innocent persons, false reporting of sexual assault has a detrimental impact on those who genuinely truly experience an assault; deterring people from stepping forward for fear that they will not be taken seriously, or might be made out to be liars.
And although false reporting of sexual assaults is indeed a problem, so too is the fact that many women (and men) are already discouraged from reporting legitimate sexual assaults.
Sexual assault is believed to be one of the most under-reported offences in our society, alongside domestic violence, for reasons which can include fear of retribution from the perpetrator and a desire not to re-live the trauma that has already been experienced.
It is widely accepted that the majority of sexual assault allegations are true, and that we have a very real problem with such conduct in our society; as has been canvassed in our recent blogs, including those about the Royal Commission into Institutionalised Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
And, in recent times, an increased media focus on sexual assault has spawned a widespread intolerance of unwanted sexual attention within the community, encouraging more victims to step forward and report crime.
This should be welcomed as a positive response – yet the above discussion signals that more should be done to prevent people from making false accusations which can have a lasting negative impact on another person’s life.
By addressing both of these issues side-by-side, we can hopefully move in the direction of tackling the problems of sexual assault and false accusations in our society.