False rape allegations: "serious, but rare"

13 September 2013

"0.3% of rape accusations are false"

Ever since an audience member introduced this figure on BBC Question Time yesterday, the claim has gone viral on Twitter. It happened during a discussion following actor Michael Le Vell's acquittal this week for charges of child rape. Audience members wanted to know whether those accused of rape and defendants in rape trials should be granted anonymity.

A fickle history

Since the Sexual Offences Act 1976, complainants in rape cases have been entitled to anonymity in the media, even if their name has been given in court. It's a criminal offence for the media to publish anything that might reveal a victim's identity, although in some circumstances the restrictions are lifted.

The same Act extended this to defendants, but since the Criminal Justice Act 1988, defendants have had no statutory right to anonymity in rape cases. In 2003 the House of Lords and the Home Affairs Committee proposed bringing back anonymity for defendants, but the Commons rejected the plans and the law remained unchanged following the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

The Coalition Agreement in 2010 also proposed extending anonymity in rape cases to defendants. But after the Ministry of Justice found a dearth of evidence on the prevalence of false rape accusations, the plans were shelved.

"Serious but rare"

That was the view of the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, after the Crown Prosecution Service last year conducted a review of cases involving allegedly false rape and domestic violence allegations.

Falsely accusing someone of rape normally results in a charge of either 'wasting police time' (with a maximum sentence of six months' imprisonment) or 'perverting the course of justice' (carrying a maximum sentence of life). However, Home Office statistics don't distinguish how many charges for these offences are related to rape, hence the CPS's study.

The CPS reviewed 121 cases of a purportedly false allegation of rape and other sexual assaults between January 2011 and May 2012. Of those, 35 resulted in a prosecution of either wasting police time or perverting the course of justice. This 35 figure compares with a total of 5,651 total prosecutions for rape over the same period.

So over the review period 0.6% of all prosecutions involving allegations of rape were for false allegations. Crucially, this doesn't include allegations of rape that don't reach court and it doesn't apply to convictions for rape.

Full Fact wasn't able to find any reference to the 0.3% quoted on Question Time, and nor was the CPS when we contacted them. It's possible that the 0.6% is what the audience member intended to refer to.

It's worth mentioning that higher estimates do exist - the Ministry of Justice featured them in its 2010 evidence review, finding that around 8-11% of rape allegations in England and Wales are false. However it added that concrete evidence about the rate was "limited and confused, and what exists is based on perceptions of practitioners and research involving small samples".

Not the main issue?

The underlying view behind raising the figure is that false allegations aren't the problem we should be worrying about, given the issues surrounding the under-reporting of rape and the relatively low number of convictions. The importance of each is a matter of opinion, but it's worth summarising what the latest figures from the Ministry of Justice do tell us:

Over the last three years, the Crime Survey has estimated that around 60,000-90,000 people are victims of rape in any one year. Meanwhile the police record 15,700 offences of rape each year (one offender can be responsible for multiple offences). 2,910 people are prosecuted (for 2.3 offences each on average), resulting in 1,070 convictions.

As we've discussed before, these figures can't necessarily be compared with each other side-by-side, since some refer to offences and others to people.

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