True or false? The contested terrain of false allegations

ACSSA Research Summary No. 4 – November 2013

Retraction of allegations of sexual assault

The idea that women who withdraw complaints or refuse to continue with the legal process have been lying may need more nuanced consideration.

In Jordan's (2004) study, more than half of the cases where retraction occurred were reported by someone other than the complainant and in many of these, retraction was linked to a lack of clarity around the circumstances of the event or the third party's misunderstanding of events or pressure to report.

In the UK Crown Prosecution Service report, one woman retracted her statement accusing her ex-husband of rape, but later she confided to police she had been threatened and that's why she withdrew the story (Levitt & the Crown Prosecution Service, 2013).

However, retraction by complainants can be attributed to a number of factors, which can include reunion with the defendant and/or pressure or intimidation from the defendant and his supporters (Anderson, Richards, & Willis, 2013) or a lack of support from the justice system. This is acknowledged also as a dynamic in the domestic violence field and justifies an approach in which it is understood that retraction does not mean that abuse did not happen (Raphael, 2008).

Similarly, children and young people who are economically and emotionally dependent on the family environment for their ongoing wellbeing and nurturance often retract their original disclosures because of an overwhelming fear of its consequences on their whole world (Evertsz & Miller, 2010; Jensen, Gulbrandsen, Mossige, Reichelt, & Tjersland, 2005).

Although not actually retracting the claims, some complainants may simply decide they don't want to continue with the legal process. This decision can be made for a variety of reasons and should not automatically be attributed to an allegation being false.

For example, the Victorian attrition study found that some victims withdrew their complaints in response to not being able to cope with the legal process, such as fears about court or giving evidence when they just wanted to forget it happened, fears about procedures such as medical procedures, and not wanting other people to find out what happened to them. Other reasons for victims withdrawing included not wanting partners to be prosecuted and fears about social implications of others finding out, such as family and friends (Heenan & Murray, 2006).

In summary, the issues around retraction and victim withdrawal from the legal process require more contextual analysis. It requires a deeper understanding of some of the social pressures and cultural beliefs around gender roles and sexual assault, that there is shame and embarrassment for complainants, as well as fear of the formal procedures of the justice system. A withdrawal or retraction may be more of an indication of a lack of trust in the criminal justice process (Kelly, 2010) or a fear of social recriminations, such as shame due to a societal response to sexual assault.