“And I think also that the number of false accusations [of rape], of people who are making an accusation when it didn't actually happen, is very, very small.”
Jo Swinson MP, 1 February 2018
“I think that although picking up on your point, although it's important to look at when they are falsely accused, that is only about 3-4% of all cases.”
BBC Question Time audience member, 1 February 2018
According to the Crown Prosecution Service: "False allegations of sexual assault and rape are rare but, when made, they are serious as they undermine the credibility of genuine victims and the efforts of the CPS and police to see perpetrators brought to justice.”
It’s impossible to know the true extent of false rape allegations. Even if we did have a definite number, the circumstances behind these cases can be complex, and don’t always reflect malicious intent.
The evidence we do have shows that proven cases of false allegations are rare, and it’s reasonable to cite 3-4% of rape cases as an estimate.
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Proven cases of ‘false allegations’ are rare
If a reported rape doesn’t result in a conviction, this isn’t evidence that the original allegation was false. Criminal charges must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt”.
There are a small number of cases where people are convicted for deliberately perverting the course of justice or of wasting police time, depending on the seriousness of the case and whether there was a named perpetrator.
A study by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) found that, in cases between 2011 and 2012, there were 5,651 prosecutions for rape and 35 prosecutions for making false allegations of rape. The CPS doesn’t prosecute if there’s not enough evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction.
The view of the Director of Public Prosecutions at the time was that false allegations were “serious but rare”.
‘False allegations’ can cover a wide variety of circumstances
Beyond when people are prosecuted for false allegations, there’s been some research looking at police case files, to try and work out how common false allegations are more generally. Here, there isn’t actually a single definition of what constitutes a false allegation.
Research by the Ministry of Justice in 2012 estimated that around 3% of 1,149 rape cases they analysed were perceived to be malicious allegations. These are not proven cases of false or malicious allegations.
This echoes a study for the Home Office from 2005 which found that about 3% of cases they studied might be considered ‘probable’ or ‘possible’ false allegations.
Both studies emphasise the limitations of their data.
While false rape allegations do include people complaining maliciously, this isn’t always the case. Research has suggested that allegations can turn out to be false if the person who reported it to the police misremembered what happened, didn’t know what happened and wanted to find out, or misunderstood the law.
The CPS, for example, mentions cases where people report to the police because they thought they might have been raped, but can’t recall because they had been affected by drugs or alcohol.
Research by the Ministry of Justice in 2012 estimated that around 12% of reported rape cases in England and Wales may be based on a false allegation if you take a broad definition that might cover these kinds of cases. Again, this goes far beyond allegations that are malicious and false, very few of these cases amount to a proven false allegation.
ITV have a list of helplines if you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article.