True or false? The contested terrain of false allegations

ACSSA Research Summary No. 4 – November 2013

What is a false allegation in the context of sexual assault?

This section summarises the debate around the prevalence of false allegations and considers what is meant by a false allegation, for the purposes of classification and recording, and some of the problems around how that classification is allocated.

Prevalence of false reports and the issue of definition

Recent literature around false reports adds little in terms of arriving at a definitive figure about just how common they are. This is despite one key analysis of 10 years of reports concluding it is a figure of between 2% and 10% (Lisak et al., 2010). There is broad agreement within the literature that the often-quoted figure of false allegations being around 2% of reported sexual assault allegations is unreliable. The commentary around the origin of this figure largely discredits it as a reliable estimation due to the lack of supporting evidence and its origins as hearsay (Greer, 2000; Rumney, 2006).

One basic reason for this is that there is a lack of consistent classification and definition about what is a false report (Kelly, 2010; Lisak et al., 2010; Rumney, 2006; Saunders, 2012). Kelly (2010) noted that a compounding issue is the lack of transparency in the classifications and about how a report actually becomes labelled a false allegation.

While the evidence about the prevalence of false allegations is not difficult to locate, it is difficult to analyse because there is so much variation between methodologies, terms and criteria used to denote an allegation as false. Prevalence figures overall will therefore differ depending on what is being counted and the method used to do so (Lisak et al., 2010; Rumney, 2006; Saunders, 2012).

One very clear interpretation of a false allegation is when it is intentional and the complainant knows that it is false. However, the reality is not often as straightforward as this due to contextual factors that also weigh in to influence the motivations of complainants. In addition, there may be allegations that police suspect are false but are not recorded as such.

Classifying an allegation as false - Consistency as an issue

There is also an issue of differences in how particular organisations, research studies, or individuals involved determine what is a false allegation and how that report should be classified. There may be guidelines as to how this is done or it may be for particular subjective reasons. Classifications also vary between jurisdictions, making compilation of statistics and comparisons difficult. As one analysis pointed out, a classification of false allegation should only be founded on a thorough investigation that a crime did not occur (International Association of Chiefs of Police, 2005; Lisak et al., 2010). Studies of reported rapes in various jurisdictions found that such an investigation did not always happen, and that recording of data about reports of rape was not necessarily consistent (Heenan & Murray, 2006; Jordan, 2004; Kelly, Lovett, & Regan, 2005).

This lack of consistency was highlighted in a research report for the British Home Office that looked at rape attrition (Kelly et al., 2005). The researchers found that there was inconsistency in the way police categorised reports of sexual assault including where a report was considered to be false. This research, based on 3,527 cases, was the largest data-set in the UK literature on rape and sexual assault. It used qualitative and quantitative data and cases were tracked with data collected on various aspects of the case including the outcomes of those cases reported to the police. Data included analysis of victim/witness statements, interviews with sexual assault and criminal justice staff as well as police statements and forensic reports.

In this project, those considered to be false allegations were recorded under classifications that included "no crime", "undetected" and "detected but no proceedings". The report found that these inconsistencies occurred at the earliest stages of investigation and that cases were inconsistently classified and not in accordance with police guidelines. Therefore, there was no clear definition of when a report was considered false. The fact that there is a lack of consistency and agreement with regards to classification of false allegations is a point that is reiterated throughout the literature. Kelly et al. (2005) considered that there was an over-estimation of the scale of false allegations by both police officers and prosecutors, which fed an organisational culture of scepticism and poor communication between complainants and police. Australian attrition research that tracked 850 cases from the police database, over a 3-year period also confirms a lack of consistency and reliability in classifying reports (Heenan & Murray, 2006).

Key points about measuring false allegations

In considering classification, two important points are reiterated throughout the literature. The first is the lack of clarity and consistency around classification of sexual assault crimes that do not proceed through the criminal justice system. There are inconsistencies in data collection both in terms of whether the information is recorded and in terms of how it is recorded and counted. This is the case across different sectors and jurisdictions, and that leads to ambiguity for the purposes of counting false allegations.

The second is that there is bias or subjectivity within the classification process, which arises from individual and cultural perceptions about gender roles, myths and beliefs about sexual assault that persist in our society. The particular context and circumstances of an allegation will influence these subjective assessments. Kelly (2002) noted that the systems, structures and institutions that set the boundaries of what is and what is not sexual violence, are constrained by gendered perspectives that are historically masculine.