[Since this post has been written, the woman has been freed. Read about it here. In spite of this relief, many of the points for concern expressed below still stand.]
A woman has been given an eight-month prison sentence after falsely retracting a complaint that she had been raped by her husband. As an apparently first of its kind, and with appalling facts, the press have been quick to report it (with articles from the BBC, Guardian and Telegraph; these sources have been relied upon in writing this post). Unsurprisingly, the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAWC) and the charity Rape Crisis have responded quickly, expressing their ‘outrage’ at the case, and there is already an abundance of comments in the blogosphere. Nevertheless, this sad and shocking story and the concerns that this case throws up are worthy of repetition here.
The 28-year old woman from Powys had been in a violent and volatile relationship with her husband of 10 years, suffering physical abuse by his hand starting shortly after the birth of their second child six years ago. In November 2009, she called 999 claiming that she had been raped 6 times. By January 2010 she decided that she wanted the charges dropped, although still said she had been raped. The police decided to continue their investigation and by the 11th February the woman retracted her complaint, saying that she had lied about being raped. She was then charged with perverting the course of justice by making a false allegation. In July 2010, she admitted that she had been raped and said it was the retraction which was untrue. She was charged again with perverting the course of justice but this time for making a false retraction. Judge John Rogers QC said that she ‘caused a substantial amount of wastage for the CPS and police’, and sentenced her to eight months in prison. She has been refused permission to appeal (see more here). And yet her husband, who is the alleged perpetrator, is at no risk of imprisonment as the charges against him have been dropped, the CPS has told the Guardian.
This case brings into sharp relief the injustices of the criminal justice system in relation to complaints of rape.
Holly Dustin, Director of EVAWC, explains this case highlights that parts of the criminal justice system fail to comprehend women’s experiences of rape and of reporting rape. It fails to recognise rape as an abuse of power and the ways in which perpetrators, or their mutual family and/or friends can put pressure on victims. This was reason, it seems, behind the victim’s attempts to withdraw her case, with her husband being described as a violent bully, and claims that it was him and his family who ‘emotionally blackmailed’ her into making the false retraction. While a retraction might not be so common, it is not highly unusual for a rape victim to withdraw their complaint. This could be similarly as a result of persuasion or coercion, or could also be, for example, because rape victims in particular find the criminal process stressful and may decide that they no longer want to face intrusive questioning and retell the story yet again, or are deterred having been met with hostility and disbelief from those within the CJS. Victim withdrawals account for roughly one third of rape cases lost at the police stage, Kelly et al. found in A Gap or a Chasm?: Attrition in Reported Rape Cases (2005) (which discusses the high attrition rate in detail). This case is yet another example of the lack of understanding of the realities of rape and the ways in which this limits the effective implementation of rape laws, in spite of the significant legislative reforms and political engagement with this area in the last decade.
Persisting unawareness of the nature and effects of rape and the particular difficulties that victims face and experience in the criminal justice system is the reason behind the high attrition rate, with the most significant proportion of cases filtering out the CJS as the earlier stages, leaving few that are prosecuted and even fewer that are actually tried. Moreover, it is often because of the ineptness of the CJS that victims choose not to report rape. The high level of non-reporting of rape in England and Wales is well known and has been estimated as 89% in 2008-2009 from the British Crime Survey data. The fact that a woman has been jailed for falsely retracting a complaint, a retraction which was made precisely because of the abusive relationship which gave rise to the rapes in the first place, provides yet another reason for victims not to make a complaint to the police.
And to top this case off, while the woman who has been repeatedly raped is in jail, the charges against her husband have been dropped and he is just another one among the majority of men who get away with rape. With the focus, as ever, on the rape victim, and her (supposed) wrongdoing – she’s wasted police time – and blameworthiness – she didn’t say no clearly enough, she was flirting, she led him on and so on – attention is drawn away from those who should be held responsible and should be punished, and the conviction rate for rape in England and Wales remains at 6%. One can only hope that her case will go to the Court of Appeal, as reported by her solicitor, and that the appeal is successful this time, and in the meantime she will be released on bail. Either way, the damage has already been done – it is just a question of extent. It is unlikely that there will be no negative impact on her and her children who are now living in the primary care of their father, regardless of the length of time she in prison. And the harm that cannot be minimised is that done by the message sent to society: the criminal justice system and its actors cannot comprehend the realities of rape and operate in way which frequently causes further harm to and blames rape victims, while perpetrators avoid legal responsibility and punishment.
To send your letters of support, please see Rape Crisis who hold postal details.