Domestic Violence Family Law

‘Clare’s Law’- A change for the better for victims of domestic violence?

In October 2008, Clare Wood ended her relationship with George Appleton. Her rejection sparked a campaign of abuse, resulting in her horrific murder four months later. Appleton had a history of violence against women, including harassment, threats and kidnapping a former girlfriend at knifepoint.

Despite a number of complaints to the police, resulting in a panic button being fitted in her home, this was not enough to save Clare. Her murder made clear that the treatment of domestic crime requires improvement. This led to a government proposal, named ‘Clare’s Law’, enabling the police to disclose information to partners of those with histories of domestic violence.

The pilot scheme, announced on 5th March 2012, will begin this summer. It follows a government consultation published in October 2011 which investigated whether a national disclosure scheme could improve the safety of people in relationships with previous offenders. The initial consultation raised important issues, such as how much information should be released and in which circumstances, and how malicious requests will be avoided. The government seeks to address these matters during the scheme’s trial.

The pilot is testing two processes for disclosing information about a partner’s violent history; the first is triggered by a query from a member of the public (‘The Right To Ask’); the second is where police disclose information in order to protect a potential victim (‘The Right To Know’). Taking into account the amount of government and police time, and taxpayers’ money spent on this issue, it is important to consider the implications of this scheme.

Two people are killed by their partner each week in England and Wales; domestic violence is the cause of nearly 40 per cent of all female[1] UK homicides[2]. Evidently, government attention in this area is required, but is Clare’s Law the answer to reducing these figures? Refuge, one of the UK’s longest running domestic violence charities does not think so. The charity has criticised the proposed disclosure laws as ‘reactive rather than proactive’.

The theory behind the Government’s scheme is that if someone told that their partner has a history of domestic violence, they can then make an informed decision whether to continue with the relationship. This, however, raises many problems; if, like Clare Wood, a woman had no previous indication of her partner’s violent behaviour, then she would be unlikely to make an enquiry. Also, it is extremely doubtful that the scheme anticipates all those embarking on a new romance to carry out a police background check – it is simply unrealistic and doesn’t reflect reality.

Further, it is often on ending the relationship that people turn violent, as was the case with Wood and Appleton. Considering this, what is a woman to do when burdened with the information of her partner’s history? Many in such relationships stay with their partners out of fear for what would happen should they leave. Others might not leave because of love and belief that their partner can change. Would a woman be blamed for not leaving her partner when informed of his violent past?

The proposed ‘Right To Know’ process means police will inform potential victims of domestic violence. Statistics show that 44 per cent of victims are involved in more than one incident[3], so certainly many victims are already aware of what their partners are capable of, without being informed by the police. Knowing that their partners terrorised others before them would provide little solace.

Additionally, how would the police determine who they should inform? Appleton trawled social networking sites looking for his women. Are the police to follow these men from relationship to relationship, or message all their Facebook friends issuing warnings; for surely any one of them could be his potential victim. If a woman was able to escape an abusive relationship as a result of police disclosure, the perpetrator would simply be able to move onto his next victim. The problem is thereby displaced rather than prevented.

The police can only inform on the basis of information they have available: the details of those previously convicted. Considering that less than 40 per cent of domestic violence cases are reported to the police, a minor proportion of offenders will have police records, making it extremely unlikely for those making enquiries under ‘The Right To Know’ to obtain accurate information.

Having considered the implications of the proposed scheme, I think the most important thing is the way in which the police handle the disclosures. Potentially life-changing and life-threatening information is dangerous if unaccompanied by police support and intervention. Because the majority of cases go unreported, police time would be better spent conducting thorough investigations into allegations of abuse and monitoring those with troublesome histories. In a less than ideal world where prevention is impossible, protection should be key.

By Judy Benmayer of

HighStreetLawyer offers advice in all areas of law, including Family Law problems.

[1] Although it is recognised that men also suffer from domestic violence, it is primarily an issue affecting women, (a third of domestic violence victims are men according to the National Centre for Domestic Violence). It is currently unclear whether Clare’s Law would apply to male and female victims, as so this article has been written from a female-centric perspective.

[2]  (Povey, (ed.), 2005; Home Office, 1999; Department of Health, 2005.)

[3] Dodd et al