How Wrongful Allegations Can Happen

In the first chapter of her excellent book “Wrongful Allegations of Sexual and Child Abuse”, the editor Ros Burnett goes to some trouble to explain her use of the term “wrongful allegation” rather than “false allegation”.

The word “false” in this context can easily be seen as a character attack on the person making the allegation. It can imply that the complainant is deliberately lying and can immediately close down any useful discussion on the subject. “Wrongful allegations” include those which are false, but made in error, as well as those that are deliberate fabrications or distortions of the truth.

In fact there are many ways in which wrongful allegations can occur, and Professor Felicity Goodyear-Smith discusses this later in the book.

Professor Goodyear-Smith divides up wrongful allegations into those that are deliberate lies or distortions of the truth, those that are partly true and those that are sincerely believed but false.

The question inevitably arises, why would anyone deliberately fabricate a story of sexual abuse? Unfortunately, there are recorded instances of occasions when people did deliberately lie. Some made up a story in order to explain infidelity to a partner, or to cover for an unexplained absence, or an unexpected pregnancy or even to get out of doing exams at school. Teachers are particulary vulnerable to students making false allegations in revenge. Another motive is to gain sympathy or attention. Being a victim can be an attractive role, particularly to someone who has had a difficult life. Another important factor in recent years has been financial gain. One firm of solicitors has advertised their services in prisons, and a no win no fee scheme can be too much of a temptation to some.

Some wrongful allegations may be partly true. For example, a crime may have been committed but the victim incorrectly identifies the perpertrator, or an event may have occurred which was misinterpreted by the complainant and wasn’t in fact a crime.

The most difficult situation to understand is that where a complainant sincerely believes something happened that didn’t. How can this be possible? Unfortunately our memories don’t work like video recorders.

I was reminded of this when I met an old friend whom I hadn’t seen for 40 years. He recounted a story in some detail which involved me as the protagonist. Strangely I had a memory of exactly the same story, but he was the protagonist. One of us was wrong, and of course, it must have been him!

However, there are more serious problems with memory. Dr Julia Shaw, in her book “The Memory Illusion” describes the concept of social contagion of memory, the way in which people appropriate someone else’s recollection of their life into their own memories. This could be a particular risk to those who lived together many years in a care home, some of whom may have been genuine victims. The stories of the genuine victims could contaminate the memories of those who weren’t abused. Another danger comes from the attempts of psychotherapists to recover memories that are said to be repressed. This technique is largely discredited but the idea that memories of traumatic events can be repressed lives on in the popular imagination. Many people have been damaged by wrongful allegations due to “recovered memories”, Chris French describes the devastation felt by families affected in this way.

Unfortunately it is now possible for a jury to find a defendant guilty without any need for corroboration, so given that sincerely believed but wrongful allegations can occur, the risk of a miscarriage of justice is clear. Chris French and James Ost wrote a chapter in Wrongful Allegations of Child and Sexual Abuse reviewing the research into the beliefs about memory held by the legal profession and the public. The conclusion was frightening. Both legal professionals and the general public had many serious misconceptions about the way memory works. Although there is good impirical evidence which has been carefully gathered by memory experts, it hasn’t been taken on board by those who need it most.

So what can we conclude? There are many ways in which wrongful allegations can occur, and not all of them are due to malicious intent. Understanding this could go some way towards reconciling the advocates for those who have been sexually abused and those who have been wrongfully accused. Both want the same thing, to make sure that the guilty are convicted and the innocent are not. Most importantly, there is an urgent need for juries and the legal profession to be updated on the latest results of research into memory and the way it can affect the reliability of witness evidence.