A New Zealand case involving a false rape complaint made by a woman who lied about her ex-partner sexually assaulting her has made international headlines and raised issues about the criminal justice process being used as a vehicle for retribution.
Last week Judge Denys Barry sentenced Esha Verma of Wellington, 37, to a year of home detention after she pled guilty to a charge of attempting to pervert the course of justice after confessing that she had made a false rape complaint against her ex-partner, who has name suppression. The complaint was made more than a year ago and raised concerns with the police when they noticed inconsistencies in Verma’s account, such as that neither she nor her ex-partner could have been home at the time she said he raped her according to travel and telephone records.
Verma later confessed in writing that she had lied about the occurrence of the rape because she was angry that her ex-partner had ended the relationship.
During sentencing, Judge Barry described the accusation as "soul destroying" for Verma’s ex-partner and found that he was "overwhelmed with despair” and had considered suicide. In rejecting an application by defence counsel for a discharge without conviction on the basis that a conviction could result in her deportation, Judge Barry described the offending as “so serious that possible revocation of residency or deportation is not of itself a consequence that is out of all proportion to the gravity of the offending”.
He said the offending was “motivated by spite”, characterised it as a “sustained and clinical course of deception” and held that Verma had displayed “no real remorse [or] palpable empathy”. He put a protection order in place for the benefit of the ex-partner as well as the sentence of home detention.
In recent years, there has been sustained media commentary about the way that police respond to accusations of sexual assault, especially in light of the Independent Police Conduct Authority’s finding in 2015 that there were “deficiencies in the [police’s] investigation practices” in the high-profile ‘Roastbusters’ case. In 2017, Labour MP Poto Williams suggested that, in order to ameliorate the problem of rape victims opting not to report their assaults to police because they have little faith in the justice system, rape accusers should be believed by police as a starting point.
The Verma case demonstrates why calls to shift the onus of proof from the complainant to the accused are fraught and go too far. A presumption that rape accusers should be believed could cause cases like Verma’s to become more common; an outcome that should be guarded against cautiously to protect the rights of accused persons and the integrity of the legal system more generally.
The presumption of innocence is the bedrock of the criminal justice system in New Zealand and a fundamental human right enshrined in the Bill of Rights Act. It should not be chipped away at because of difficulties with the prosecution of sexual violence.