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Michael P. Bury and Joseph A. Neuberger
Neuberger & Partners LLP
False sexual assault allegations can have significant implications in Canada, as they can impact both individuals and the broader society. It is important to note that false allegations of sexual assault are increasingly common, with studies suggesting that the rate of false reports is similar if not higher to that of other serious crimes. When false accusations do occur, they can have the following implications:
Damaging reputation and emotional well-being: being falsely accused of sexual assault can cause immense harm to the accused individual’s reputation and emotional well-being. It can lead to stigmatization, social ostracism, loss of employment, strained relationships, and psychological distress. Even if the allegations are ultimately proven false, the damage caused can be long-lasting and irreparable.
Undermining trust in legitimate victims: false accusations can erode public trust in legitimate victims who come forward with genuine claims of sexual assault. When a false allegation gains media attention, it may perpetuate stereotypes and reinforce skepticism, making it more challenging for actual survivors to be believed and seek justice in our courts.
Straining the legal system: false sexual assault allegations can place a strain on the legal system and divert resources away from legitimate cases. Investigations and court proceedings consume significant time and money, and when false accusations are made, it can impede the handling of genuine cases and delay justice for real victims.
Deterrence for reporting: the fear of being falsely accused may discourage some individuals from reporting actual incidents of sexual assault. This could result in underreporting, denying survivors access to support services, justice, and necessary interventions.
Over the course of the last year, several trial decisions that we have received clearly demonstrated false allegations. Unfortunately, at the end of the trial, there was no action taken by authorities to address the complainant by way of charges. Often clients ask if the person will be charged or what can be done to address the harm caused, and there is little to no recognition of the reality of false accusations in the criminal justice system and rarely if ever will a false claimant be charged. The client can hire a civil counsel and launch a civil action against the claimant but that is also an arduous process and may lead to no financial recovery at the end of the day.
There seems to be a general reluctance to lay criminal charges against complainants who fabricate these allegations. In the Canadian context, the cases are sparse. When charges are laid, it is typically when complainants admit to the police that they have made up false stories prior to anyone getting charged or their stories do not add up. In R. v. Hudon (1996) A.J. No. 492, for example, an 18-year-old woman accused three men of a violent sexual assault. A massive investigation followed including extensive interviews of family members and spouses of the accused men. All men retained counsel. Prior to any charges being laid against the men, the woman admitted she had lied. She was subsequently charged and sentenced to 15 months imprisonment. Unfortunately, serious damage had already been done to the men’s lives and reputations. Similarly in R. v. Ambrose (2000) A.J. No. 1148, a woman falsely accused a police officer of sexually assaulting her while she was in a police holding cell. Upon her release from detention, she told her brother and doctor that she had been raped. She complained and an investigation was initiated. The officer was cleared and no charges were laid against him. Instead, she was charged with public mischief and ultimately sentenced to two years less a day in prison. Again, reputations were destroyed during a terrible ordeal no one should have to experience.
For the most part, challenging the credibility of these types of allegations almost always requires a trial and the grueling preparation required to win. There is, however, a glimmer of hope from other jurisdictions. In England, the recent case of Eleanor Williams had considerable notoriety because it involved a 22 year old lying complainant who fabricated a web of false sexual allegations against several men ranging from rape to human trafficking. As in many of our cases, the men were criminally charged, some spent time in pretrial custody. To the credit of the authorities, further investigation revealed serious holes in Williams’ concocted stories against the men. In the end, the charges were withdrawn and instead Williams was charged. A jury of six men and six women took just three-and-a-half hours to find Williams unanimously guilty of eight counts of perverting the course of justice. Williams showed no remorse. Wendy Lloyd, the senior crown prosecutor, said: “The impact on those falsely accused has been devastating and this conviction now fully exonerates the men who she accused of serious sexual abuse.” Williams was sentenced to eight and a half years jail.
It is essential to recognize that false accusations are on the rise and cause real damage to those who are falsely accused. The focus should be on creating an environment that supports both victims and the accused, promoting fairness, due process, and evidence-based investigations to ensure justice for all parties involved. It is time for academic rigorous studies to be undertaken to accumulate data on the prevalence of false accusations, the harm caused and to look at reasons for false accusations. It is no longer acceptable for society to ignore this reality.
Neuberger & Partners LLP is teaming up with an academic to commence work on gathering data on false sex assault allegations. Hopefully with time, we can push back on the myth that false accusations do not occur with rigorous data and study.