Recent events appear to suggest that there is a need for much clearer sentencing guidelines for people who knowingly and maliciously make a false accusation against someone else.
The instances which have caused most controversy involve false accusations of rape but the argument applies to any other false accusation.
There is good reason to believe that real cases of rape are a genuine and growing problem. Accordiny to a survey by the Channel 4 show Dispatches, one in four women has had her drink spiked with a date-rape drug. People working on the study questioned 750 women in 16 cities across the UK.
In 1994, 169 incidents involving allegations of date rape drugs were reported to the police, but last year this had reached 998. That’s almost a six-fold rise.
The proportion of rape allegations leading to a conviction is only 5%. This very probably indicates that far too many actual rapists are getting away with their crime, but knee-jerk measures to try to raise the conviction rate will not necessarily automatically reduce the level of injustice. Malicious false allegations do happen, and in some cases excessive use of alcohol can make it particularly difficult to establish the facts, especially when one or both participants became too drunk to remember the following morning whether consent was given or not. The police labs which test people for date rape drugs have sometimes found no sign of them but dangerously high levels of alcohol.
This is not an argument against sympathetic treatment of rape victims. It does mean that both accuser and accused have a right to a fair hearing - and if any government appears to be trying to rig the courts against the accused they risk creating a backlash in which juries simply will not convict - and that will undoubtedly let more guilty rapists walk free as well as acquitting some men who are innocent.
The signs that such a backlash may be starting are evident in the comments left on various news websites following reports that Gemma Capon was let off with a 12-week suspended sentence and ordered to pay £95 costs after being convicted of making false allegations of rape against her former fiance.
Ms Capon told detectives that her former fiance had forced his way into their home and raped her on the living room sofa. As a result he was arrested in front of colleagues at the pub where he works as a chef and held for almost 24 hours. He was interviewed, had his DNA, fingerprints and mugshot taken and was subjected to intrusive forensic examinations. However, he was fortunate enougyh to have an alibi, and was released on bail. When police confronted Capon with discrepancies in her story she confessed that she had made it all up and was charged with wasting police time. Officers spent 156 hours investigating the false claims, which could have been used protecting women from real dangers.
District Judge Tim Daber said Capon's behaviour had undermined the 'credibility' of genuine complaints.
Of the large number of people who have commented on this, only a microscopic proportion consider a 12 week suspended sentence and less than £100 in costs to be remotely adequate. But I am not rushing to blame Jude Daber, because he was operating within the rules laid down by the government. And the real problem is that the six-month maximum jail term which was the most severe penalty he could have imposed given a charge of wasting police time, and which set the context for the punishment he could give, having to be matched against circumstances such as how quickly she confessed, is ridiculously light.
Almost every man who has commented on the Capon case, and a large number of women, has rightly commented on the fact that her punishment was ludicrously light compared with the sentence the man she falsely accused would have received if convicted.
Almost every woman who has commented on the case, and a large number of men, also recognised that whenever a woman makes a false accusation of rape, it makes it harder for genuine rape victims to get justice.
There is no need for men and women to disagree over this: such false allegations are against the interests of innocent victims of both sexes, both the men who are falsely accused and women who are genuine victims. But it is very clear from the comments made by a large number of men that they percieve elements of the government and the "politically correct" as trying to rig the courts against men. When such people are called up to serve on juries in rape cases the likely result is only too obvious.
This is the second such case to hit the headlines in a few days: the previous week Joanne Rye was given an eight-month prison sentence for falsely accusing an innocent taxi driver of raping her. There have been understandable comparisons between the suspended sentence imposed on Capon and the much more serious penalty imposed on Rye: the latter case was vastly more serious, as Rye kept up the lie for 20 months, despite a check of the satellite navigation system in the cab concerned proving that the accused man had been nowhere near the area where Rye said she was raped, and CCTV footage of her drunken behaviour on that night which proved it could not have happened in the way described.
But both women caused great shame and disgrace to totally innocent men who were arrested at his home and taken to the police station where intimate samples, DNA and fingerprints were taken.
Under the Labour government's present policies both men will now have their DNA on file. These incidents tend to confirm my in the view that CCTV, which helped clear an innocent man, is generally a good thing but that only those who are actually convicted should have their DNA retained.
In the interests of justice it appears that clearer sentencing guidance is needed when someone is convicted of making false accusations. This should not only apply where the false accusation concerned is rape - a false accusation of assault, theft, or fraud should be treated in exactly the same way.
It seems to me that the guidelines we need should start from the baseline that, before any mitigating or aggravating circumstances are taken into account, the starting point for calculating the sentence appropriate for someone proven to have knowingly made false accusations against an innocent person should be the sentence the accused party would have received if the false accusations had resulted in them being convicted.