Will ‘Clare’s Law’ protect women from domestic violence?
Imagine you’re enjoying the first flush of a new relationship and you have the chance to apply for access to your new partner’s criminal history – would you do it?
Under Clare’s Law, which is being piloted in four areas across the UK, individuals or family members can apply to vet new partners for violent convictions.
The law takes its name from Clare Wood, the 36 year old from Greater Manchester who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend George Appleton in 2009, a man with a string of violent convictions against women including kidnapping one girlfriend at knifepoint.
Call me a cold hearted bureaucrat, but I’m suspicious of laws which name themselves after murdered women or children. It’s true for Clare’s Law as it’s true for Sarah’s Law which went before it, named after abducted eight-year old Sarah Payne.
There’s more than a slither of manipulation at work in the naming of these laws and the desire seems to be to stifle debate: No one wants to be accused of trampling the legacy of a murder victim.
But when Clare’s Law is exposed to scrutiny, the cracks become blindingly obvious.
Behind the fanfare surrounding its launch is the fact it offers very little that’s new; under current legislation individuals can apply for information on a partner’s past convictions if they think they might be at risk.
So if it offers little more protection, what’s behind our enthusiasm for Clare’s Law? Its arrival speaks of a society where faith in the criminal justice system to keep us safe sits alongside full employment and free school milk, as a vague and distant memory.
Of course, arming yourself with any information that might protect you from violence makes good common sense. But the premise of Clare’s Law flies in the face of everything we know about human nature and the sometimes mesmerising force of relationships.
Would I have given bad boyfriends the elbow if, before things got serious, I’d had the chance to peruse a dossier of criminal convictions, psychological assessments, a complete breakdown of their full relationship history? Almost certainly not.
For men and women alike, affairs of the hearts are rarely decided according to rational, informed judgement. And even if they were, the vast majority of people prone to interpersonal violence have never been anywhere near a courtroom, let alone convicted.
It seems much more likely Clare’s Law will become a tool in the armoury of the disgruntled mother in law or estranged spouse, keen to dig dirt on their loved one’s new beau.
The truth is that domestic abuse often creeps up, out the corner of your eye, by a process of escalation and normalisation. Most of us will have some experience of the eye watering things that pass for acceptable behaviour, behind closed doors, between people who are supposed to love each other.
If you’re trapped in a violent relationship the chances are you won’t need a criminal records disclosure to tell you what your partner is capable of. Before the attack that puts a victim in hospital or brings the police banging on their door, they’re likely to have endured a lot already.
But Clare’s dad Michael Brown is convinced the new law would have saved her:
“I have said time and time again that, had this been in place and had my daughter had any inkling of what this laddie was capable of, she would have been long gone.”
Sadly, by the time she died, Clare Wood was acutely aware of George Appleton’s brutal tendencies. She had already reported him to the police several times for threatening to kill her and for violence and sexual offences.
Police arrested him but let him go. Clare’s death doesn’t highlight the need for a new law. It highlights the need for existing ones to be properly followed by police as they respond to cases of domestic violence.
For Michael Brown, his campaign to introduce Clare’s Law has been a brave struggle to draw some hope from his daughter’s senseless death.
But when the scheme will be so expensive to set up and even domestic violence charity Refuge says it will do more harm than good, why is the government supporting it?
Clare’s Law will score easy popularity points for a government that desperately needs them. By backing it, they can be seen to answer the demand made by successive tabloid campaigns, to put victims rather than criminals at the heart of the criminal justice system.
But if the government was really concerned about the UK’s domestic violence epidemic, would they be pursuing cuts to services like Women’s Aid, which mean scores of victims at severe risk are turned away?
In an age of austerity, surely politicians should be channelling money into schemes that help the greatest number of people?
Victims need much more than information on their partner’s past convictions if they’re to escape the noose of domestic violence.
Rather than setting up Clare’s Law, here are five things the government should have spent their money on:
- Specialist training for police officers to improve their responses to complaints of domestic violence, so women like Clare Wood can receive proper protection.
- Abuse starts young– we need more education in schools to teach children acceptable behaviour in relationships and how to navigate and escape domestic violence.
- More treatment for perpetrators of domestic violence – never the most popular use of government money but the woeful lack of schemes mean future partners are left exposed to a perpetrator’s violence.
- More resources and support for women and men fleeing violence including refuges, floating support and permanent housing.
- What about the men and women who decide to stay? Sympathy often runs dry for people who stay in abusive relationships, but abuse works by severing escape routes and there’s no room for idealism when we’re talking about domestic violence. With the right support, victims can make their situations safer which could mean the difference between life and death.