Friday 22 July 2011
Although the government launched a plan to end violence against women and girls earlier this year, “Clare’s Law” , which would allow police to warn people if their new partner had a violent past, was not included.
The origins of “Clare’s Law” lie in a single case: the murder of Clare Wood by her former partner George Appleton, a man whose violent background was known to the police.
It is unclear what such a scheme might look like but “Sarah’s Law”, recently rolled out nationally, may provide a model. Under that scheme, which is intended to prevent sexual abuse of children, parents can request a check for information about an individual with access to their child.
But would a change in the law have made a difference in Clare Wood’s case? It is important to note that although Appleton had a history of violence his list of previous convictions was comparatively unremarkable – one for common assault and two for harassment, none recent. This pattern is not uncommon even for seasoned perpetrators of domestic abuse, partly because of the difficulty in persuading victims to support a prosecution, but also because many cases are routed via the family courts when victims seek civil injunctions to protect themselves and their children.
The “Clare’s Law” proposals would not hamper the ability of serial abusers to continue. Although the scheme could permit the sharing of information, it is easy to imagine a potential victim still in the romantic haze of a new relationship being persuaded that it was just malicious gossip, a misunderstanding, perhaps mistaken identity or, as is often the defence in such cases, that their lover was defending themselves against a violent ex-partner.
“Clare’s Law” is based on the assumption that people would make safe choices about relationships if they were better informed. But it is difficult to think of a practical mechanism that could turn this assumption into reality.
Such a system also risks creating a false sense of security and a tendency to rely on official agencies rather than a person’s own instincts when judging the suitability of partners. There are many violent and potentially violent offenders who would be given a clean bill of health under the proposed scheme. Would that make their partners safer?
Instead, we should think when, rather than what information might be disclosed. What might be the triggers for a request for information by a potential victim (as with “Sarah’s Law”), or an approach by the police themselves?
Whichever way a scheme is structured it seems likely that by the time a woman (or man) is in contact with the police they will already know that their partner is violent, abusive or controlling.
Clare Wood knew George Appleton was trouble because she repeatedly contacted the police to ask for help. She made allegations of criminal damage and described his threats to kill her. What difference would it have made had she been given a list of his convictions or a summary of his background? She had worked most of it out for herself.
When they investigated Clare Wood’s case, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) found that the police were aware of Appleton’s background but had underestimated the risk he posed. Their report concluded that while there were mistakes in police procedure, none represented a missed opportunity to prevent the murder.
At what point should or could the police have parachuted in with disclosure of Appleton’s past? Knowing he had used social networking in the past should they have monitored Appleton’s Facebook account and contacted all those he struck up relationships with? Before the first date? Once it got “serious”? Should they have notified Wood after her first complaint? By that stage, she already had experience of the pattern of behaviour he had displayed with others. But Wood’s murder was not a repeat of previous behaviour, it was a significant escalation, and one which the IPCC apparently does not blame the police for failing to prevent. What might she have done to protect herself had she known Appleton’s history?
It is not realistic to expect women to check out potential partners in the heady days of first dates and new romance. Nor is it realistic to expect the police to seek out and warn any woman in a liaison with a man with some history of domestic abuse. It is even less realistic to expect the same to happen in the case of male victims, of whom there are a significant number.
Most victims of domestic violence do not lack information. They know that their partner is violent or has the potential to be violent. What they lack is either an escape route or the ability to survive without their partner. For many victims the dependence is financial, for others it goes deeper and they are unable to separate emotionally.
The true picture does not often resemble Julia Roberts’ plight in the film Sleeping With The Enemy, where the heroine could have been “saved” had she only known that her charming husband was a diabolically clever psychopath.
It is dangerous to generalise but many victims of domestic violence either leave and return to their partners repeatedly or move through a sequence of abusive relationships, making bad choices where others would have “got out” early on. Many abusive relationships involve drug and alcohol abuse on the part of one or both parties, with this either fuelling the violence or providing a way of surviving it. Such victims will not be made safer by “Clare’s Law”.
Many victims are also ill-equipped to spot the signs of a potentially abusive relationship, raised in violent households and come to see violence as “normal”, or have such poor self-esteem that the abuse they receive somehow seems to them like a fair trade-off for the benefits of the relationship.
These victims need a range of help – to make the decision to leave, stick to it and choose better next time. Fundamentally they need refuges and domestic violence charities to support and counsel them. They need rehab and courses like the Freedom Programme to help them find new ways of seeing relationships.
The “go orders” currently being piloted will give victims the space to think about what life might be like without violence and make plans for a different future, but even these will be of little use in the face of the closure of domestic violence agencies as local authorities cut financial support.
The coroner, when giving her verdict in the Wood case in May, agreed with the Association of Chief Police Officers’ call for information sharing about the background of violent offenders. But perhaps the most important aspect of the IPCC and coroner’s reports was the reminder that we need to maintain focus on how the police and other agencies respond to people who ask for protection, and creating exit routes and ongoing support for those ready to leave abusive relationships.
Lucy Reed is a family law barrister. She writes the Pink Tape family law blog and is the author of Family Courts without a Lawyer – A Handbook for Litigants in Person