GUEST BLOG: Marie Dyhrberg QC – False sexual accusers face little risk

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The Sexual Violence Bill now before Parliament this week is a travesty that strengthens the already strong arm of the state and subverts a central tenet of our legal system – the presumption of innocence. The bill’s aims are political: to appease rape activists by softening the trial process for complainants and to send more “perpetrators” to prison by making cases harder to defend. The proposed changes to our law are so pernicious that most defence trial lawyers and some prosecution lawyers fiercely oppose them. The activists promoting the bill peddle the lie, based on unscientific statistics, that false sexual allegations are so uncommon that we can assume all sexual defendants are guilty.

Sexual crime has devastating effects, and it was too often ignored in the past. However, the bill bluntly overcompensates for this. I have defended many clients on sexual charges and have seen at first hand innocent men put through unbearable anguish. The number of false sexual allegations is hard to determine, but my experience convinces me it is far higher than usually acknowledged. Any lawyer familiar with such cases can only laugh at the fanciful “one percent” false allegation figure offered by false-allegation denialists, such as was recently reported in a Stuff article.

The Ministry of Justice, its minister and the government ‘Establishment’ generally, choose to ignore any discussion of false allegations. No one in the mainstream media – and almost no one in the police – pays any attention to the plight of the falsely accused and lenient treatment of false accusers.

A rare example of one false accuser being called to ‘account’ – in a jarringly light- handed way – is demonstrated by a case in which I was recently involved. My client, a migrant taxi driver on a temporary visa, faced a rape accusation from a passenger. The police immediately charged the driver, who desperately pleaded with the police to look at the taxicam footage. Fortunately, the police eventually did – but only after six weeks, by which time the driver had lost his job and endured terrible stress. Luckily intact, the footage made clear that the complainant had made it all up. Of course, had the footage been lost he could have expected to be charged and very possibly convicted on the grossly dishonest, malicious and cruel allegation of the complainant. His aspirations would have been destroyed by a rape conviction, he would have been jailed and then deported with no right to return here. No doubt he would have also become a pariah once in his home country.

So what happened to the lying complainant? The appropriately-correct charge for her should have been attempting to pervert the course of justice, which carries up to seven years imprisonment. Instead, the police laid the minor charge of making a false allegation, punishable by up to three months imprisonment, which ended up in her being discharged without conviction (meaning no criminal record) and given name suppression – all of which means her next poor victim will have a hard time discovering that she has done it all before. For her therefore, there was no trial, no punishment, no real cost and no loss of reputation. High stakes for him, but no stakes for her.

This is depressingly typical; false accusers almost always face no consequences even in cases so strong that any jury would convict them. Conversely, after aman’s trial facing a false allegation, while the complainant resumes normal life the (hopefully acquitted) defendant struggles to retrieve his reputation, mend his mental health and meet the enormous financial burden that successfully defending these cases typically requires.

The bill assumes the way the legal system works for sexual cases needs to be overhauled, but the system itself is already fit for purpose. What should change is that the police need to do their job; to investigate allegations promptly, thoroughly and objectively, rather than follow their now normal procedure – directed from Wellington – of automatically charging on practically any complaint. The lazy police cliché line of ‘just let the court decide’ is really a cop-out that absolves the police from their traditional responsibility for finding out what happened and then exercising real discretion to charge or not – before any accusation leads to an expensive and stressful trial. The result in too many cases is that jurors acquit in ten minutes and wonder how it was possible for such a flimsy case to have come so far. Some police officers are perceptive enough to see these flaws but their hands are tied by the directions given on charging in sexual complaint cases, those directions being the default position and the current climate is so attuned to delivering more convictions that only the bravest will talk about it openly.

Apart from proper police investigation, another way to stop such vexatious sexual accusations coming to court would be to routinely prosecute false accusers as a disincentive to liars and fantasists – with actual charges and sentences that reflect the devastation they cause in the lives of their victims. Here they tend to be forgiven out of vague “public interest” because the police, who aren’t psychologists, decide they have “issues”. In the United Kingdom however, around 25 of the worst false allegation offenders are given jail sentences every year. In over 30 years in criminal law practice in this country, I have not heard of any of the women who have made false allegations being sentenced to prison.

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The Sexual Violence Bill addresses none of this, of course. It is a blunt ideological instrument designed to put more men in jail by obstructing their legitimate defence. The first ‘headline’ clause in the bill will prima face prohibit contextual evidence consistent with innocence. Secondly and even more sinister is the clause that would require in practically every case, a defence lawyer to cross-examine the complainant months (or years) before trial – long before his lawyer has unearthed the facts that would enable competent defence. Another dreadful by-product of this clause is that the prosecution and its witnesses will thus have an enormously lengthy opportunity to ‘fix’ weaknesses in their case, the defence having been forced to give notice of those weaknesses – a grave breach of the defendant’s right to silence.

Our criminal justice system is a collection of irreducible rights, designed to avoid convictions of the innocent. And it should never be corrupted to achieve the political purpose of increasing conviction statistics. The Sexual Violence Bill will certainly lock up more “perpetrators”, by allowing even more unjustified trials and by jailing even more innocent men. Parliament should vote it down.

Marie Dyhrberg QC is president of the Auckland District Law Society

21 COMMENTS

  1. I’m glad to see TDB is prepared to publish rational, well-informed critiques of New Zealand’s current mania for identity politics. Bravo!

    • Pope P 11 Agree 100%. The legal profession knows, and the police know, and some of the rest of us know, that false accusations of sexual misconduct occur, and they can destroy the falsely accused. The reasons for such accusations can be myriad.

      Yet time and again, this is presented as nonsensical urban mythology perpetrated by the New Zealand Police acting with hidden agendas. We who query this are patronised by the young and the ignorant, told we are wrong, and to float off and have a Merry Christmas.

    • Martyn had been a steadfast (and sometimes lone) voice against identity politics for some time. My political geography is most probably polar opposite to him, but I respect that he tries to keep the looniest of those who want to feel special by excluding others from their little niche groups. I also have empathy for him, as he being on the left, he is most likely surrounded by more cancel culture progressives wokester protagonists than I. That must be tough.

  2. Good luck stopping the Bill. It will be ten years before it gets overturned once it gets through the House.
    Don’t expect any help from journalists.

    Unfortunately, the zeitgeist of our times is that womyn are victims of men everywhere and always, and men are always beasts who get off scot-free because of the Patriarchy.

    The thoughts and writings of Andrea Dworkin has made a come-back in NZ.

  3. That must be a two way street. We routinely see appeals with zero hope of success that cost the taxpayer many millions every year. They also retraumatize the victims with no consequence whatsoever to the offender. He gets time with his legal team, court days to break up his boring prison routine and even some false hope so it’s win win for him and his legal team, lose lose for everyone else.

    What percentage of these creeps are classified vexatious litigants? I’d like to see an incentive / deterrent against failed appeals that never stood and realistic chance of success.

    • @ Thinking Man
      I believe it’s Indonesia that has the retrial law that if you are found guilty again, no new game changer evidence came to light, then your initial sentence is increased!
      Would make the clearly guilty person have 2nd thoughts of rehashing the trial again that there is actual consequences of same result but with a sting in the tail.
      I have no doubt the legal fraternity would fight tooth and nail against this kind of thing as it’s easy earned money that would be taken from their pockets.

      • Im right,

        Exactly the ticket required. A deterrent against costly appeals to the taxpayer that have virtually zero hope of success and only serve to retraumatize the victim which at times can be a motivator for some vile creeps.

        I’m sure the odds of lawyers supporting such a law change would be similar to the odds of turkeys voting for an early Christmas.

  4. The legal system is supposed to work on an assumption that you are innocent until proven guilty.
    Everyone knows that this is basically disregarded whenever there are any charges of a sexual nature against a male.
    This legislation will only cement this woke attitude further.
    All men are rapists, of course.

  5. Hi Marie, great article and I am with you and Samira Taghavi 100% on this. I have mentioned it before but a case I heard about in a talk I attended and which is burned into my memory is the case of the man whose partner accused him of assault and raping her over the three years of their relationship. The cops charged him with all these crimes. He and his lawyer were able to retrieve thousands of social media communications between the guy and his partner which proved the allegations were a lie. On seeing these communications the prosecutor from the crown withdrew all the charges.

    Quite apart from the dreadful false allegations the woman made against her partner, two things really worry me. Firstly, apparently the cops would have had access to the social media communications but they did not disclose them to the man’s lawyer. Secondly, they did not charge the woman with making a false complaint.

  6. Good sense as always from Marie Dyhrberg QC. Politicians, other columnists and the general public need to be reminded that suspects are not necessarily perpetrators and a justice system must be assessed on its balance, not on how many convictions it produces.

  7. Generally speaking, anybody who gives false witness to police or in legal and court proceedings can expect to suffer none or very ineffectual consequences no matter what the allegation.

  8. Looking at the Equality Act in the UK to learn about it. This para is from a wikipedia report and might be of interest here in NZ.

    In 2020, certain groups attempted to legally challenge the EHRC’s* Code of Practice on “Services, Public Functions and Associations”, which attempts to provide practical guidance on implementing the Equality Act, concerning the advice that service providers should in general treat trans people as their acquired gender. The challenge failed to get a hearing before the High Court of Justice, because the justice did not consider the case to be arguable.[40]
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equality_Act_2010#Contents

    *The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is a non-departmental public body in England and Wales, established by the Equality Act 2006 with effect from 1 October 2007. The Commission has responsibility for the promotion and enforcement of equality and non-discrimination laws in England, Scotland and Wales.
    Equality and Human Rights Commission – Wikipedia

  9. ‘ the accused’ is not ‘the guilty’, that’s why he’s called ‘the accused’ now if we’re going for a presumption of guilt how about we apply that to false accusations too rather than accept ‘oh the accuser was strezzzed mannnn’ so no harm done.

    one unforeseen consequence might be that just like the reluctance for the courts to find a woman guilty of murder under capital punishment in the UK..maybe juries will try not convict in future rape cases unless forced to…not a good outcome for rape victims.

    It does seem in general terms recent and upcoming NZ laws are so badly drafted that they might well be written in crayon by a particularly dim child.

  10. the reason the stats on false accusations vary wildly is no academic wants to do serious research because the results may well be ‘unwanted’ and possibly career threatening..which is fine with the authoritarians who’s assertions can be accepted as fact, when they should be faced with ‘well you can’t prove the level of false accusation is as low as you claim’ because until proper research is done we just don’t know.

    personally I suspect in the age of ‘me me me’ and entitlement coupled with already low evidentiary standards they may be higher than anyone thinks but I don’t know that, I assume that and therein lies the rub.

  11. I’d like to see heavy penalties against people who are shown beyond a reasonable doubt to have made false accusations. At least as much as the penalty their victims would have faced.

  12. Yes that would be fair,there certainly need to be some accountability and surely it is slander and breaking the law. It is a terrible crime to ruin someone’s life with false accusations that could put them behind bars. I seem to remember that JJ Feany, the broadcaster, accused a taxi driver who was also an immigrant of attacking her after driving her home when she was pretty drunk (something taxi drivers have the right not to have to do) which was later proven to be false, possibly through the belated retrieval of taxi camera footage? …but she seemed to get off scott free. Why? She may well have been in a disturbed state having just been dumped by her husband apparently, but that does not give her carte blanche to bolster her ego with such a pernicious accusation against a complete stranger, and a vulnerable and poor one to boot. That incident was really shameful, she never recanted or aplogised, sticking to her lie, playing the victim to this day no doubt. I always felt that it was swept under the carpet with a minor bit of egg in her face because she was a public figure. Poor man, did he get any compensation for the hell he no doubt went through? At the very least she should have to pay that.
    But let’s not forget Tony Veitch, who managed to get off kicking his girlfriend down the stairs and breaking her back and other terrible things because he was also a popular public figure who go away with victim blaming his girlfriend for the beatings he gave her and even managed to review his sports career with the support if powerful mates, until he decided to upsticks to Bali or something. Hmm, if someone brutally beat me up and broke my back I think jail time would have been fitting, however he managed to ‘avoid’ that.

  13. In defence of Dani, I have had a similar experience.

    Twenty years ago I was raped and nearly murdered.
    I blamed the wrong person.
    I blamed the man who actually rescued me.

    When I woke up without my knickers on and a bleeding vagina my first thought was to stop this happening to anybody else.
    I was angry. confused. I went to A&E

    Despite all the reports of drink-spiking and needle-spiking in clubs and other places, there is a serious denial of this problem. It’s usually young men and women who are not believed or their experiences written off as mere whinging and attention seeking. Other victims are too embarrassed or compromised to report anything.

    Some drugs/pharma can be powdered and blown into the air, producing an awake stupefaction in the victim, who will accede to the most self-destructive commands (usually emptying their bank account and giving up their bitcoin password or whatever…) but remember nothing.
    Those heavy duty date-rape drugs really, seriously fuck with your mind; not just for the duration of the black-out either, your memory recall is shot to pieces and your brain overclocks.

    (Just trying to write this post brings me to a standstill. A lawyer friend of mine says they don’t believe in ‘recovered memory syndrome’ because..facts. However, it has taken this blog and this article to niggle at that part of my consciousness marked *.)

    As for Judge Ruth, “he accepted publication would affect Weir’s mental health, but said it was a normal consequence of offending, and not “extreme hardship”. So where is her support? Nine court appearances sounds outrageous. It kind of sounds like he is sentencing her to the mental health system, which can be a lifelong delight(sarc) of- drugs/pharmaceuticals ad nauseam, compounding the initial damage.

    Innocent till proven guilty-ipso quod dictum est

    Thank you, Peter, for posting the article.

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