QotD: “Prosecuting Eleanor de Freitas ended in tragedy. So how do we deal with alleged false reports of rape?”
The tragic case of Eleanor de Freitas has provided more questions than answers. What should be done about those few cases in which women make false allegations of rape? Should libel courts be used to determine the woman’s guilt in such cases? And how do we ensure that the disproportionate attention in the media regarding false allegations does not lead to an even bleaker outlook than already exists for rape victims seeking justice?
In January 2013, De Freitas, who had had a very brief sexual relationship with a man named Alexander Economou, alleged rape to the police. Economou was arrested, questioned, and then released without charge. Police decided not to proceed with the case, but in August that year Economou, the son of a wealthy shipping magnate, took out a private prosecution against De Freitas for perverting the course of justice. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) examined the evidence and concluded it met both the evidential and public interest test set out in its code, and took it over.
Economou had alleged that De Freitas was advertising herself as an escort. Part of the evidence being relied on by the CPS was CCTV footage of her and Economou shopping together for sex toys, the day after the alleged rape. As a defendant in criminal proceedings, De Freitas was publicly named. Four days before the trial was to begin, her mother found her hanged in the family home.
Her father, David de Freitas, was referred by the charity Inquest to a lawyer with expertise in rape investigations and in holding the state to account. De Freitas attempted to persuade the coroner in the forthcoming inquest to examine the role of the CPS in pursuing a prosecution, and how it impacted on Eleanor’s death. The coroner refused, and De Freitas decided to go to the media in a desperate attempt to reverse that decision and to raise the issue in public.
De Freitas had seen his daughter’s mental health spiral out of control with the stress of a forthcoming trial, and had questions as to why the CPS saw fit to pursue a young woman suffering from bipolar disorder through a trial during which details of her sexual history would be made public.
Had the coroner agreed to examine the role of the CPS in his daughter’s death, De Freitas would not have felt the need to go public. But as a result of the publicity generated by De Freitas’ campaign against the CPS and coroner, Economou decided to sue De Freitas for libel – in order, he said, to clear his name, despite the fact that De Freitas never named Economou, nor claimed he was guilty of rape.
Yesterday, Economou lost his case. Had he won, the implications for those reporting rape to the police, or even disclosing such allegations to friends and colleagues, would have been incalculable.
In 1999 the first case of slander brought by a man accused of rape resulted in a hung jury. Had he won, the woman who had alleged rape would have subsequently been stripped of her anonymity, as was Eleanor de Freitas.
In 2000, a man was awarded £400,000 in damages following a defamation case against a former colleague who had been found, according to a civil standard of proof, to have falsely accused him of rape. The average criminal injuries compensation tariff at that time for rape victims was £7,500. Such cases deter women from coming forward to report rape. The woman in this case had not even been to the police, but had told colleagues.
Home Office-commissioned research on rape attrition from 2005 found that around 3% of reports of rape are false. The impression given by some sections of the media and men’s rights groups paints a very different picture.
The charging of rape complainants with perverting the course of justice is an area of huge controversy. In 2011 Keir Starmer, the former director of public prosecutions, instituted a consultation that led to a full review with new recommendations and guidance introduced.
The tragic outcome of the Eleanor de Freitas case demands a full analysis of why such a vulnerable woman with a serious mental health diagnosis came to face trial, taking her life rather than undergo the ordeal. Her case should have provided a crucial opportunity to explore in detail whether the current guidance is effective.
Now that the libel trial is over, perhaps we can remember Eleanor de Freitas as a human being, and not just a case. David describes his daughter as having been “loyal and kind”.
Perhaps the most fitting legacy for Eleanor is a public inquiry into her case, with an aim to learn lessons from this tragedy. Should the CPS have proactively sought to take over a private prosecution from a man who could start the ball rolling because he was rich enough to bring it in the first place? So far, David de Freitas has been prevented from asking these questions. They should now be answered.