Defending Sexual Assault Allegations

Defending Sexual Assault Allegations

An allegation of committing a sexual offence is life-changing. Clients are often suspended from work, rumours circulate, comments may appear on social media (which can remain forever) and it can split families. If you have children, Social Services may become involved and you may be prevented from living at home or seeing your children. And this is even before you are charged or convicted.

False accusations bring lasting devastation: Inside the world of criminal defence.

An Interview with Marcus Johnstone

This week, Lawyer Monthly had the opportunity to talk with Marcus Johnstone, a UK criminal defence solicitor with over 20 years of experience. Marcus started off as a senior lecturer in law and politics but in his heart, he is a true defender and has been exclusively practising criminal defence, specialising in sexual offence allegations, in the UK for over 20 years. Marcus is a Senior Solicitor and director at PCD Solicitors and is highly regarded in the UK legal community for his nationwide specialist work as a sexual offence defence solicitor with particular expertise in defending rape, sexual assault, indecent images and historic sex offences.

Working closely with some of the country’s leading barristers, Marcus and PCD Solicitors are without a doubt a step ahead of other law firms when it comes to defending sexual allegations. 

What inspired you to specialise in criminal defence?

In my opinion, criminal law is the most important area of law. Let’s face it, which other area of law, if something goes wrong, can you face spending the rest of your life in prison?

Imagine being accused of a sex offence. Just an allegation often results in the loss of your job, your family unit breaks down, you are stopped from seeing your children and you may be held in prison during the investigation.

Now, imagine being the victim of a false sexual allegation. In recent years I have noticed a massive increase in false allegations. However, the starting point for the police is that the person making the complaint is believed, and the person accused is made to feel like they have to prove their innocence.

A conviction for a sex offence can not only result in a prison sentence, but you also have to register as a sex offender – sometimes for the remainder of your life.

There is also a massive imbalance of power between the prosecution and defence. The police, with all their powers to investigate, are part of the State. Cases are prosecuted by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), again part of the State. People making complaints are now given considerable support from the state, with specially trained police officers, support staff and counsellors. The defendant, on the other hand, has no support from anyone.

I wanted to try and rebalance the power, to try and achieve a fair and just outcome. It is a massive honour to represent any client and thereby be the only person fighting to ensure they are not convicted.

PCD Solicitors only handle sexual offence cases. This is quite unique. How did this come about?

I recognised many years ago that to become the best at something, you had to specialise. I wanted to concentrate on offences carrying the most severe sentences and those that have the most impact on the lives of those accused. I have always wanted to protect people against false allegations and wrongful convictions.

Many years ago, I started to notice a year-on-year increase in sexual allegations, largely as a result of information appearing on the internet. There was also a massive increase in those accused claiming the allegations were false. Social media, dating sites, chat rooms, the ‘#MeToo’ movement, attention-seeking disorders and other mental health issues have all played a part in people willing to claim they are victims of sexual assaults (whether true or false).

I set up a law firm to specialise in sexual defence work, with particular emphasis on identifying and defending false allegations. I figured that if I could spend all my time dealing with this area of law alone, I would become more knowledgeable than other lawyers and better able to defend my clients.

As far as I am aware, we are now the only law firm in the UK that only handles sexual defence work. Concentrating solely on sexual allegations has enabled me to build what I believe is the country’s leading sexual defence firm.

Man in handcuffs
Man in handcuffs

What types of sexual offence cases have you worked on over the last 20 years and how have sex crimes and defending sexual offences evolved during this period?

Sexual offences can be split into two categories; those committed by personal contact (sexual assault, rape, harassment, coercive behaviour, etc) and those committed over the internet where no personal contact takes place (indecent images, revenge porn, grooming, incitement, etc).

20 years ago, very few offences were committed online – because most people had no access to the then-emerging internet. In 2024, most crimes are now committed online!

Just as there has been a massive expansion of online (lawful) pornography, there has been an equally massive expansion in online illegal pornography. The internet is, in effect, responsible for the explosion of offences relating to indecent images of children.

Facing an allegation of a sexual offence has a devastating impact on you, your wider family, your reputation and potentially your livelihood. What happens when someone is accused of a sexual offence and is there a strategy for handling false allegations for sexual assault?

An allegation of committing a sexual offence is life-changing. Clients are often suspended from work, rumours circulate, comments may appear on social media (which can remain forever) and it can split families. If you have children, Social Services may become involved and you may be prevented from living at home or seeing your children. And this is even before you are charged or convicted.

We have a well-tried and tested strategy for dealing with this problem. As soon as we are contacted by a new client we arrange a detailed conference to obtain all the background information. We go on record with the police and CPS the same day to request an update and disclosure of any evidence. We have a team of three lawyers who work on each case, plus our support staff. We start working on defence arguments from day one. Of course, we are also able to represent our client at any police interview.

If a client has not yet been charged with an offence (but is under investigation), our main aim is to stop a prosecution. We try to do this by liaising with the CPS and showing that the evidence, as presented by the police, does not reach the prosecution threshold. There are particular legal arguments that need to be made to the CPS to try and stop a prosecution – and this work should be started as soon as possible.

The CPS may then decide to take no further action or issue charges and refer the case to court. If a client is charged with offences, we can then, of course, defend the case in court. It will take between 12 – 24 months for a case to reach a trial. During this time there are various steps we may take to try and get the case thrown out. Of course, we also have expert barristers to represent clients at any trial.

Lawyers at a desk looking at paperwork
Lawyers at a desk looking at paperwork

Nigel Lythgoe, Donald Trump, Vin Diesel, Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs, Prince Andrew, Jamie Foxx, rock star Axl Rose, and Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr have all recently been accused of sexual assault with lawsuits filed. Making malicious false allegations of sexual abuse, violence, and rape against men is on the increase. Why is this happening and how is it possible to protect your legal rights in a false accusation legal claim?

I have certainly noticed over recent years a huge increase in false rape allegations. There are several reasons for this, including the ‘#MeToo’ movement, the availability of social media for women to gather support, mental health and attention-seeking disorders. There has also been a growing increase in the desire for compensation. A victim of a rape offence may be awarded around £100,000. Some police forces now actively advertise for women to come forward and report abuse – stating that they will be believed.

In a recent development to this compensation culture, a man who posted on the internet a couple of nude photographs of his ex-girlfriend stood in the shower had to pay her almost £100,000 in compensation for her mental pain and suffering. For the first time in legal history the Judge regarded her mental trauma as the equivalent of a physical assault.

I have several cases of husbands and wives who split up after the marriage breaks down. The wife then makes a claim of rape going back years. This is often linked to child custody battles, access to matrimonial assets, access to maintenance, mental health, etc.

To protect your legal rights you should contact a specialist solicitor as soon as possible. Personally, I have always offered an initial consultation free of charge, and most of our ongoing work can be completed on a fixed fee – which remains the same however long the case goes on. This takes a lot of worry away from a client – because they know from the outset what the legal costs will be.

Whether arrested for a single accusation of rape or assault, or as part of a wider investigation into pattern of behaviour, the stigma of being accused of these crimes is devastating. What is your advice to anyone accused of false sex crime allegations? How should you respond to sex crime allegations and what should you NOT do?

Seek expert advice as early as possible from a specialist law firm. You should avoid a legal aid firm, as these firms are generally set up to deal with legal aid cases – and legal aid is only available after someone is charged. My main aim, from the outset, is to stop my client being charged.

Build your defence early – I work with clients on this point over several weeks or months, starting from day one. Even before a police interview and long before a charging decision is made, I work with clients on all background issues, assess the available evidence, obtain constant updates from the police (regarding their investigation) and learn as much as we can about the complainant. This all helps me to formulate defence arguments.

If you need to attend a police interview, do not rely on the duty solicitor but, instead, have your own private solicitor with you at the station. Do not say anything to the police without your solicitor being with you.

Unfortunately, as with most things in life, money talks. If you can afford it, pay privately for legal advice. There is a massive difference between what can be achieved on a private basis as opposed to legal aid. Legal aid is a state handout and, as with any state benefit, pays the absolute minimum.

Rape carries a maximum life sentence. It is the most serious sexual offence and yet legal aid only pays around 10% of the amount actually required to defend a case properly (in my opinion). In other words, around 90% of the work that should be completed to defend a case properly does not get done – because the legal aid firms do not get paid to do it. Shocking isn’t it?

All law firms and solicitors like to say they are client-centric, but that’s not always the case. Relationships require constant communication. To build trust, firms need to continually validate their relations and find out what their clients want. How has PCD solicitors managed to become one of the UK’s leading sexual offence defence specialists?

Whether a case can be defended successfully largely depends on the preparation work. It can take 6-12 months even before a charging decision is made by the CPS. It can take a further 12-24 months for a case to reach a trial. The trial itself may only take 3-5 days. Preparation is the key.

We spend a considerable amount of time with any client, gathering background information, relationship history, medical information, version of events, etc, so we can start to formulate the very best defence arguments from an early stage. We also investigate, where possible, the background of the complainant.

We have a team of lawyers working on each case we deal with. I also involve senior, specialist, barristers from the very first hearing – who will remain on the case throughout. By doing so we build up a considerable amount of information about our client, the complainant, the evidence and our defence.

We are also able to obtain all the evidence at the earliest possible time. By reviewing the evidence with our client in person and taking as much time as we need, we are able to prepare the case properly. It can take several months to build a defence property – just as the police and CPS may take several months to build the prosecution. During this time we can really get to know our clients, and they can get to know us.

I also know the importance of being there for every client. A member of my staff is in charge of pastoral support for clients – largely unheard of in a law firm. This isn’t about being a lawyer, it’s about caring for a client’s welfare, offering support, chatting and being available if a client wants to talk. We introduced this support after one of our clients committed suicide whilst waiting to see if he would be charged. (Two days after this client committed suicide a letter was delivered to his address informing him there was to be no further action. It was sent second class and took five days to reach him. Two days too late.) We don’t want to lose any other client this way.

People discussing a legal case
People discussing a legal case

Have there been any recent or notable legal developments or landmark cases regarding sexual offence crimes?

Case law and legislation is continually developing. So are the types of sex crimes and the reasons for committing them. Rapes are increasing because more people are reporting them. The ‘#MeToo’ movement and social media sites have certainly increased the number of allegations of historic rapes. The media, internet sites and even the police now encourage victims to come forward and complain.

Online offences are continually developing. Social media sites will pay money to content creators. More amateurs are posting content. The boundaries are constantly being pushed as to what is legal / illegal. Does the person look aged 17 (a child) or 18 (an adult)? A photograph of people on a train is lawful, but if it is possible to see up a woman’s skirt, is it unlawful? Possibly. Possibly not. Uncertainties in the law also create defence opportunities.

Revenge porn is now a crime. In a recent case, which set a precedent, a woman whose nude photograph was uploaded to the internet by her ex-boyfriend was entitled to almost £100,000 in damages (compensation) because of the mental anguish caused. The same amount may be claimed by a victim of rape.

The newly created Sexual Risk Order can be applied for by a single police officer, even before you have been charged with any offence. Unless opposed, this will be ‘rubber stamped’ by the Magistrates’ Court and thereafter all your internet usage, search history, sites visited, phone calls made and received, etc, will be monitored by the police, and your devices can be inspected by the police at any time. Failing to keep a phone number or a record of a website visited can result in you going to prison.

Finally, what is the most rewarding part of being a criminal lawyer specialising in defending sexual offence allegations and is there a particular case that stands out for you?

The most rewarding part of my work is defending a client against a false allegation and winning!

A few years ago I represented a young man who had been charged with 7 counts of rape. Everything about the case indicated to me that the complaint was false, and my client was completely innocent. It took 2.5 years from the date she complained to the police until the trial. After a trial lasting 5 days, it took 20 minutes for the jury to find him not guilty of all charges.

We later found out that the woman concerned had made previous false complaints, had admitted to her psychiatrist that she made up stories and had previously complained of rape against another man – who had also been prosecuted and found not guilty.

Despite being acquitted on all charges, this young man’s life has changed forever. He now suffers PTSD as a result of 2.5 years of investigation, accusations and a five day trial. He now finds it difficult to trust females and cannot go out – for fear that someone will accuse him again. The law says he is not entitled to any compensation.

There are, no doubt, many women who are genuine victims of sexual abuse and who, quite rightly, want to be dealt with fairly by the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, their cause for fair treatment is being diluted by the ever-increasing number of false complaints.

Marcus A Johnstone, Solicitor
PCD Solicitors
Tel: 0151 705 8488


Published by:

15 March 2024 at 10:58

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