Clare’s Law: a simple solution, or more confusion?

The news this morning that ‘Clare’s Law’, by which according to the BBC ‘enables women to check the police record of a new boyfriend’ will be expanded to cover the whole of England and Wales is one that fills me with unease. On the surface it seems to offer a simple tool in the fight against what is a truly horrendous problem – but I find myself wondering whether the process and the implications of this law have been properly thought through.

I look forward very much to seeing the results of the pilot schemes that have been operating since September 2012 – and in particular how the ‘success’ of the scheme is being measured. Did they measure how many reports were requested? Did they ask how many relationships were either not entered into or ended by the woman who discovered information? Did they attempt to measure an impact on domestic violence or other related offences? If so, it would be very interesting to know how – and I hope they make the information public.

Practical questions – and potential misuses

One question that immediately entered my mind when I heard about this scheme is how it actually works in practice. At what stage would a woman be able to ask for this information – and what if any evidence would she have to provide in order to get the information. Would it be when she had had a single ‘date’? Or even before that? How could or can you prove that you have a relationship with someone? If you need proof, then that might make things very difficult – sneaking around to gather information about your ‘boyfriend’ might even put you in more danger. If you don’t need proof, then that leaves the system ripe for abuse – for example by unscrupulous journalists trying to dig up dirt on someone they’re planning a story about.

That brings up one fairly fundamental point: do we consider these kinds of records as in any sense private or confidential. Do we want them to be ‘public property’ – because if we do, we need to be very clear about that, because there are implications, some of which are very serious. It makes the idea of rehabilitation much harder, let alone redemption. It has an impact on the potential fairness of trials – there’s a reason that previous convictions are not usually disclosed in a trial until after guilt or innocence is determined.

The risks of this kind of a system

One scenario keeps running through my mind. Imagine a woman has got a new boyfriend, and she’s not quite sure about him. Something makes her nervous and unsure – so she takes advantage of Clare’s Law and checks out his criminal record. When it comes back ‘clean’, she’s reassured and puts her worries to one side, and enters the relationship. The trouble is, the boyfriend is violent, and the woman finds herself becoming a victim of domestic violence. Rather than using other methods, or trusting to her instincts, she trusts the ‘clean’ criminal record – and suffers directly as a result.

Would this be an unusual scenario? Hardly, because by most accounts the vast majority of domestic violence and spousal abuse remains unreported. It seems highly likely that the majority of violent men don’t have criminal records. Clare’s Law, even if it’s used by women, is unlikely to really work – and may indeed, if this kind of  scenario is played out, end up putting women into more danger.

There’s another side to this – it may even be that a side effect of Clare’s Law is to perpetuate another damaging myth: that the only violent men are those we characterise as ‘criminal’. That ‘normal’, ‘respectable’ men aren’t capable or likely to commit violence. That’s simply not true – some of the most outwardly respectable men, without apparent blemishes on their character, let alone criminal records, commit hideous acts of violence to their partners.

Normalisation of checks – and the undermining of privacy

What’s more, this system adds to a building momentum against privacy – and in favour of checking everything and assuming that those checks will solve the problems. It’s that kind of approach that underpins the support for large-scale surveillance, and the building of the database state – even without proof that it actually helps, and indeed the distinct possibility that it will do exactly the opposite. If the solution to any problem is to go and check the records, the implication is that we need more records, more information – and hence more surveillance and less privacy. If we imply that before embarking on any relationship, anyone should do a complete background check on the person that they’re considering a relationship with, we make such background checks the norm. That may be OK – but it would be a big step to make, a step towards a society which relies on records and tests more than on humanity.

‘Simple solutions’ – and bureaucratic idealism

This leads on to another closely connected issue – and a pattern that this kind of ‘solution’ seems to fit into. We seem to look for ‘simple’ and surface level solutions to problems that are complex, deep-rooted and societal. The problem of domestic violence is a huge one, and one that we need to address very seriously at every level – and not just look for good headlines in the Daily Mail. It is not a problem easily amenable to simple solutions. As tweeter Guy Herbert put it this morning, it ‘ignores the whole psychology of abusive relationships in favour of bureaucratic idealism’. It may work in theory – but are the women in this kind of position likely to avail themselves of this kind of a service? Even if they do, how will they react to the information that’s provided?

I look forward to seeing the evaluation of the pilot schemes – because if this really does work, if it really is a useful tool, then it should be welcomed – and some people I deeply respect have told me that they know a number of people who would have been helped very directly by the existence of the law.

If, on the other hand, it is merely a distraction to get good headlines and distract from the real, crucial underlying issues, then the reaction should be very different. If at the same time as bringing in a law we are reducing funding for the crucial services to help victims of this kind of abuse and violence, then we should be shouting this to the rooftops. We need more information, more education – particularly of boys, and particularly about relationships – and more enforcement of existing laws.

Right now, I’m not quite sure which way this goes – but at first glance this looks more like headline-grabbing than something that can really help.

UPDATE V2! Some of the evidence has now been published. It’s here, but it only covered the new ‘Domestic Violence Protection Orders’, used as a civil law response to incidents of domestic violence, not as ‘check-ups’ of potential new boyfriends. I’ve tried to find evidence of the actual pilots of Clare’s Law, but so far all the Home Office seems to have posted is a press release.

13 thoughts on “Clare’s Law: a simple solution, or more confusion?

  1. I think it is just another example of the growing obsession with Police-checking people. So many jobs now require Police checks. All they tell you is whether someone has a conviction and even that information is not always very clear. POlice convictions can sound much worse or less bad than the actual offence is. Sometimes a lesser charge is brought because it will be easier to achieve a prosecution. People should not be outsourcing relationship decisions to the Police. There is no real end to this. People who are buying a house might want to know whether there any convicted burglars living near to a house they want to buy. They just put everyones Policem record on the web. That is where it is headed.

  2. Every person I’ve ever known (female AND male) who has suffered DV has had a partner without a criminal record. It’s a ‘nice’ idea though. I don’t have the answers, but like most things, I imagine it lies in education, education, education.

    • That’s my experience too. Having no criminal record means only that you have no criminal record – not that you’re not capable or likely to use violence or other forms of abuse.

  3. I agree with your analysis of potential problems. What also concerns me is the way the issue is gendered. Now, I accept that domestic violence tends to be perpetrated against women by men more often than the other combinations (at least in terms of reported crime), but the reporting of all this tends to imply that it is only women suffering at the hands of men.
    Various figures have been bouncing around, but let’s assume some truth in the ‘approximately 100’ women being killed by male partners or ex-partners in the UK each year. Approximately 30 men are killed in connection to domestic abuse too – approx. 10 of whom are perpetrators of violence who are killed by their victims, 10 are killed by men and 10 are killed by women. What isn’t apparent from any figures I have seen is how many of the women who are killed in connection with domestic abuse are, or have been, abusers. I have no idea whether it would be reasonable to think it may be as many as a third of the total, as it is for men. I also don’t seem to be able to find figures on how many women are killed by other women as a result of domestic violence (I have seen reports of it happening, but maybe it is too rare to figure in the statistics?)

    Although this may mean women are 5 times as likely to be killed than men when already on the receiving end of domestic abuse, it seems wrong to me to effectively ignore the 16% (or more) of victims who are male, just because of their gender…

      • I don’t see why you need to “emphasise” that women are much more likely to be victims. This seems to suggest that although men are also victims, that doesn’t count as much! Tell that to a man who have been violently attacked by his female partner, or to the family of a man who has been killed.
        The media already perpetuate the myth that domestic violence is only perpetrated by men against women. So what’s needed is to simply state that this occurs in ALL gender- combinations and is equally unacceptable in ALL cases (regardless of what proportion of the statistics they fit into).
        PS: Excellent blog-post! Thanks.

  4. Totally agree on education – if everyone is taught to respect others and demand respect, it’s a better start than what many people have now. But that’s a long-term plan (unfortunately) with delayed results.
    Is this a reasonable stop-gap, providing a tool that will be useful until the effects of (hopefully) other positive action kick in? I don’t know, and that’s where your call for evidence comes in.

    It has to be a case-by-case situation. I don’t know the details of how it would work either, but it does seem wrong that someone with convictions of that sort should have that hidden from potential partners – it seems like a simple thing to counter from some angles.

    I’m not sure we do understand human behaviour well enough to make such a call – I wonder how much input from relevant professionals they had. If there’s good evidence for abusers adhering to patterns, it might be more fair than not.

    I’m really stumped on it, it’s a very tough situation indeed.

  5. Initially, when the pilot of Clare’s Law was announced in March 2012 and with scant information to go on, I thought this an excellent idea that offered a means of helping keep potential domestic violence victims from abuse and violence. As time has moved on, I fear that this is simply a sticking plaster, a headline grabbing device jumped upon by government that really will not help victims and/or potential victims, at a time when government is making far reaching cuts to domestic violence services. A vehicle for government to ‘look good’ whilst it severs and virtually eliminates access to justice via the civil route, slashes policing which so desperately needs full and comprehensive training on domestic violence for every single officer to effectively crime such actions, and support services for vulnerable women and children.

    The key is – and must be – education. We, as a nation, shy away from even discussing this growing pandemic because of the stigma attached to even voicing the words ‘domestic violence’ and in so doing so, we aid and abet perpetrators by helping continue to keep this abhorrent crime a silent, embarrassing issue that victims are afraid to discuss. Let’s face it: victims don’t realise that a relationship is abusive until there comes a point, a ‘light bulb moment’ when there is no getting away from the fact that a relationship IS abusive and dangerous. If we had a compulsory programme of education available to everyone, everyone would be able to identified the very typical traits and tactics employed by perpetrators and therefore, would be better informed about whether or not to start a relationship with such a person to begin with.

    I would much rather see a national awareness campaign dovetailing with a mandatory education programme implemented, starting in schools and reaching out into the wider community to ensure everyone knows exactly what domestic violence is, how perpetrators operate and how to help safeguard themselves from such individuals.

    In terms of gender: yes, men are and can be victims of domestic violence. The simple fact remains that one woman every three days is murdered in the UK by an ex or current partner. This is fact. Domestic violence impacts far many women than men. And at a time when this government is making sweeping cuts to support and agency services, is Clare’s Law really going to help secure lives and safeguard potential victims from an ex or current partner intent on committing the most cruelest of crimes – ending another’s life for their own satisfaction? Or subjecting another person to a barrage of abuse both during and after such a relationship ends, as so frequently happens?

    I think not.

    What of the violent and abusive ex/partner’s with no criminal record? Those not reported to the police. And those that are, that have worked their all-too-typical manipulative tactics with all including the police and support workers? We already know that over 1.2m women a year suffer domestic violence with 555K finding the courage to report to police. When an officer asks a traumatised victim why she just didn’t she leave, this clearly demonstrates an officer and a police force so desperately lacking in any knowledge of what exactly domestic violence is and how it impacts victims. Again, education is desperately need – including our police forces, especially our police forces and criminal justice system.

    So why so few prosecutions? A little over 111k prosecutions? And with one in four women experiencing domestic violence in her lifetime, this estimated 1.2m figure is, in my opinion, a rather conservative figure.

    Upon reflection, I fear that Clare’s Law will not have the desired impact and that we, as a nation need to wake-up to the fact domestic violence is a pandemic growing, not abating, that we need and must call government to account to educate, protect and serve all victims of domestic violence. And not use a sticking plaster solution that makes great news headlines as a vehicle to deflect from the real issues.

  6. DV is highly complex. In my experience most people involved in violent relationships if not all, both victims and perpetrators (and sometimes both can victims and perpetrators) have grown up as children surrounded by violent parents etc and have internalised this as a part of relationships. They accommodate the violence and often minimise it, and almost behave as if its not there. There are parallels with children who want sexual abuse to stop but do not want to lose the relationship with the abuser. I think that is often the case with DV where the victim dislikes even hates the violence (or disassociate’s from it) but wishes it to stop, rather than the relationship to stop. This law i’m afraid will have no impact on that dynamic. The victims already know their partners are violent!

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