05:12, January 23 82 0 theguardian.com

2019-01-23 05:12:04
Women who allege abuse face terrifying libel threats. This is a disaster

Despite the various calls to reform the UK libel law to prevent “libel tourism” and prevent vexatious allegations designed to quash debate and freedom of expression, the door is open for wealthy men to use a range of legal mechanisms (such as superinjunctions and non-disclosure orders) as an effective way to shut women up.

Imagine the following scenario: a woman is raped, and reports this to police, as well as disclosing to mutual friends. When the case is passed to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), it is decided that there is not enough evidence to bring charges, perhaps due to the culture of disbelief within the criminal justice system, or to avoid prosecuting what are considered to be “difficult cases”. The victim is subsequently issued with a terrifying threat of libel from the rapist. There is no legal aid to defend a libel action, and she has no money. She endures the hell of a trial, facing the man who raped her. If she loses, which she may well be in financial ruin – bearing in mind the prejudicial attitudes and belief systems around women’s culpability, and the disproportionate media coverage about false allegations – and will have to pay not only the massive legal fees, but also substantive damages to her rapist.

Twenty years ago, I sat through a libel trial at the high court that ended with a hung jury. It was the very first case in the UK of a woman being sued for defamation after accusing a man of rape. The accused had always denied the allegation. The case took five years to conclude, and was widely reported in the media. It is my view, having long campaigned to address the shockingly low conviction rates in sex crimes, that most women would think twice before reporting rape if they thought there was a possibility that the accused would have the resources to take out a civil case against the complainant if the case did not result in a conviction.

Women can also face the threat of litigation in cases of domestic violence. Take the Stocker v Stocker case, which is due to be heard by the supreme court on 24 January. The facts of the case are as follows: C sued his ex-wife D and won his case of defamation and subsequent appeal following remarks that D made on Facebook to C’s partner. C had previously been arrested for domestic violence in which he strangled D (she had visible red marks around her neck when police arrived). But the judge in the case found in favour of the litigant, because when the defendant wrote on Facebook “he tried to strangle me” the judge ruled that a “reasonable person” would infer that he had tried to kill her, which was deemed to be a libellous remark. This is despite the fact that strangulation is a high-risk indicator for domestic homicide.

Another case involves a young woman called Eleanor de Freitas, who hung herself two days before her trial for perverting the course of justice. Eleanor had made an allegation of rape, which was discontinued by police. The accused then took out a private prosecution against her (later taken over by the CPS). Following Eleanor’s death, her father David was sued for libel after he spoke out on radio criticising the CPS for taking over the prosecution of his daughter, who had bipolar disorder. David de Freitas successfully defended himself, but one can only imagine the effect this case will have had on a grieving parent.

I have heard of other cases where women who have alleged abuse, and in one case, child abduction, have faced libel threats and action. I have also interviewed a number of women who tell me they are frightened to report violent men because of the threat of ending up in court themselves. Bearing in mind how few women see justice when they report rape and domestic violence, this is nothing short of a disaster.

It is telling that tickets to a public meeting on the topic sold out within hours of being announced, prompting the organisers to find a bigger venue. There is obviously a need for libel laws to offer a form of redress for those who have been falsely and maliciously accused of any crime, but the reality is that violence against women is insufficiently understood or cared about, and all too often, the reputation of men is seen as far more important than any harm done to women.

Julie Bindel is a journalist and political activist, and a founder of Justice for Women

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