Domestic violence in England and Wales is still a prevalent issue, with Home secretary Theresa May stating in her press release that 88 women were killed by their partners last year. The “Clare’s Law” scheme, named after Clare Wood who was killed by her violent partner in 2008 without any knowledge of his history of violence against women, will enable police to make disclosures about such violent histories, a move which Clare Wood’s father Michael brown stated “could, quite possibly, have saved her life”. The scheme, which has been piloted in Greater Manchester, Wiltshire, Nottinghamshire and Gwent is now to be rolled out nationally in England and Wales, after having made 111 disclosures in the four pilot areas, and will allow police to disclose violent offending in two ways: one , a right to ask for information on whether a partner has a history of domestic violence, and, two, a right for a concerned third party, such as a neighbour or friend, to make an application. It also allows for police to disclose information proactively in prescribed circumstances, through a Domestic Violence Protection Order. Where the police feel that violence has been threatened or used against a victim and their safety may be at risk, an order may be issued either on the spot, with a Magistrate’s Court hearing the case within 48 hours of the notice.
Although giving vulnerable women who are at risk of domestic violence the ability to know about a partner’s violent past, there is significant concern surrounding the law from various charities. Karen Ingala Smith from domestic violence charity NIA suggests that the law itself places the burden of preventing violence on victims, and therefore where victims receive information, may be blamed for not escaping the situation. Although the police can disclose information in “prescribed circumstances” there is no indication how frequently this will be used, and therefore the burden is placed predominantly on the victim or a concerned party. Even where a victim does request information, this will only be disclosed where it is necessary. The problem here is that without disclosing the information to people such as family members or agencies, there is no guarantee or impetus that a victim will leave their partners, with many women either feeling trapped, or so in love that the information is of little use. Such problems were exposed in the channel 4 documentary “do you know your partner’s past” which followed the pilot, but it appears that there has been no aim to correct the flaws for a national rollout. Furthermore, where victims do seek to leave their partners, simply empowering them with necessary information cannot protect them from any consequence of leaving their partner, which Ingala Smith notes, can be the time that victims are at the most serious risk. What’s more, as Lucy Reed points out, if women are told there is nothing to report, they may be lulled into a false sense of security, when the case may be that the information has not been deemed serious or important enough to be disclosed.
Notwithstanding this, there is an argument that disclosures may be made against people who were never proven guilty of any violence. Although in some circumstanced this will be a benefit, there will be many falsely accused who will have unfounded allegations raised before a new partner. Furthermore, from every article listed and many more, one could be easily forgiven for thinking the law related exclusively to women, and although such publication is excellent for notifying women of their right to ask regarding their male partner, man who fall victim to abuse, and many in the LGBT community in relationships may feel that such right does not extend to them. There is a clear deficit in this respect and not only does this law again seem to “prioritise” the heterosexual relationship, it may also indirectly infer to the public that only women suffer at the hands of domestic abuse.
Clearly, Clare’s Law has a wealth of potential benefits and burdens, and even though such powers to disclose are already held by police, the advertisement of Clare’s Law may mean that people previously unaware of its existence will now request information. I have no doubt that informing people of violent histories is important, and can enable many to leave situations where their partner could harm them, or violence could increase. However, I have reservations where support networks are concerned. If disclosures are to be made, they could be more useful where made not only to the victim, but to agencies which could support victims and keep in touch with victims who do not choose to leave in order to ensure their safety. And/or disclosures could be made to family members as well, which could enable them to watch for any change in behaviour or injuries that might alert them that something serious is happening. Of course, this must always be balanced with autonomy of individuals who ignore information, which is of course, their right. A person cannot be compelled leave their partner simply because others feel that this is the right thing to do. This being said, the main problem with Clare’s Law is that it places a substantial amount of responsibility on the victim, except for those situations in which the police disclose information voluntarily. This could be seen as another classic case of the law not protecting victims of crime as adequately as it could, as I, and probably many others would argue that a man with a violent past towards women should have to disclose such information to a future partner. There is no reason why someone at risk should bear the responsibility for their own safety in any circumstance. Conversely, simply because there is no violent past does not equate to safety. Perhaps the most effective strategy would be to place emphasis alongside such a scheme on education, whilst promoting and better funding agencies which provide support for victims of domestic violence – so not just disclosing information of a person’s violent past, but also enabling people to use that information to protect themselves.