Before 1994 judges in uncorroborated sex offence trials warned the jury that experience demonstrated that it was dangerous to convict on uncorroborated evidence but if they felt sure they could do so.
The mandatory corroboration warning was abolished by statute as being ‘demeaning to victims’. Since that time the presumption of truth in sexual allegations has become commonplace in the media and criminal justice system. Complainants are routinely termed ‘victims’ while there are strict rules on the extent to which they can be cross-examined on credibility at trial because it is felt to be a traumatic form of ‘re-victimising’.
But there are good reasons to believe that false allegations are far more prevalent now than when the corroboration warning was in force. Reasons include the following:
Compensation may be a strong incentive, with mass civil claims bundled against the authorities running the home or school.
Claims of abuse also fit in with the trauma theories. Many ex-care home residents have had a damaged childhood prior to being in care and may go on to having difficult adult lives, including alcohol, drugs and criminal offences. To attribute these problems to institutional abuse where there is a potentially significant financial reward may be an easy source of temptation.
- The large number of historical allegations
- Trauma theories and ‘false memory’
- Lifelong anonymity of complainants
Official figures for false allegations are misleading. At 2 per cent they only deal with cases that are proven to be false. These tend to be contemporaneous allegations where there is independent evidence to disprove the claim. Most allegations cannot be definitively disproved and rely on one person’s word against another’s.
The rise of historical allegations and prosecutions has exacerbated the risk of wrongful prosecution and conviction. It is easier for a jury to come to a rational verdict when the evidence is fresh and there are circumstantial facts to rely on either way.
In historic cases there is usually scant evidence to directly contradict an account. Consequently it may be both more likely that a case is prosecuted and also that a defendant is convicted on fragile evidence.