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Clare’s Law: The End of Domestic Violence or Just a Surface Scratch?

Clare’s Law: The End of Domestic Violence or Just a Surface Scratch?

The introduction of the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme (DVDS) pilot comes with much admiration from the general public as a milestone in solving the problem of domestic violence, but is it likely to have the effect that everyone is hoping for? Or are there other options that could have a much bigger impact?

September 2012 saw the start of the much publicised pilot of the DVDS, more widely known as Clare’s Law, across four police forces in England and Wales. Campaigns for such a scheme were lobbied following the death of Clare Wood, who was murdered in Greater Manchester in 2009 by her former partner, George Appleton, following months of harassment, sexual and physical assault. At her inquest, a verdict of unlawful killing by strangulation was recorded by the Coroner.

Woods’ father, Michael Brown, reported that his daughter told him that George Appleton had a conviction for driving offences. Appleton was found to have previous convictions for harassment and assault of former partners, for which he had been given several prison sentences: six months in 2001 for breach of a restraining order and three years in 2002 for harassing another woman. Mr Brown claimed that his daughter had not been properly protected by Greater Manchester Police, and had he known about Appleton’s previous history, would have told Clare to stay well clear. An investigation into how Greater Manchester Police dealt with the case was published in 2010 by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), finding that there had been failings.

Domestic violence is a problem of grand scale, with 18 per cent of all violent incidents being due to domestic violence. It also carries one of the highest repeat victimisation rates of any crime, with 44 per cent of victims being victimised more than once in 12 months. It was estimated in 2009 that domestic violence costs £15.7 billion in public services, loss to economy and victims. It is also a crime that is not limited to female victims; many would be surprised to find that one in every six cases of domestic violence is against a male.

It is also a crime that is not limited to female victims; many would be surprised to find that one in every six cases of domestic violence is against a male.

The Government started a consultation process, with the aim of investigating the effectiveness of the current system and identifying options to reduce crimes of domestic violence and prevent atrocities like the death of Clare Wood. The DVDS consultation process carried three potential options. Firstly, do nothing and continue to use the current available powers. Secondly, a ‘right to ask’ scheme, and thirdly, a ‘right to know’ scheme. As it stands, the current laws allow members of the public to request information about a third party’s violent history, and for police to disclose information to the public regarding previous convictions or charges, where doing so may prevent a further crime. The new scheme, introducing specific ‘right to ask’ and ‘right to know’ options may therefore seem as if it is simply putting a title to an already existing set of powers.

The ‘right to ask’ option allows members of the public to request information about a third party’s domestic violence or violent history. This option allows external parties to request disclosure if they are concerned for the safety of another. Any relevant information may then be passed onto the individual at risk, but not necessarily the external party that made the request.

The ‘right to know’ option provides for the police to proactively disclose information to a person who they consider to be at risk from an individual with a violent history.

The costs of running the new options have been estimated as £390,000 for ‘right to ask’, allowing for 500 cases per year, with an expected benefit of £260m to the economy. ‘Right to know’ comes at the increased cost of £1.57m, based on dealing with 1,000 cases per year, expecting to save £650m. To the layman, savings in public spending in the region of hundreds of millions can only be a good thing, of course, who could turn their back on figures like that? It is only when put into context that the problem is highlighted.

If even one life is saved from the changes then it should be regarded as a success.

Money and savings aside, the aim of introducing the new scheme is to reduce domestic violence and save vulnerable lives from being in danger at the hands of a partner with a history of domestic violence or violent crimes. With this in mind, ‘right to ask’ is expected to reduce domestic violence by 0.2% per year, and ‘right to know’ by 0.5% respectively. If even one life is saved from the changes then it should be regarded as a success. The difficulty comes in proving that the incident was going to happen in the first place. Questions have to be asked whether £650m could be saved simply by police forces using the powers that are already available to them more effectively.

The introduction of the DVDS pilot scheme has brought about much debate; public perception is that Clare’s Law is going to solve the big problem that is domestic violence. The verdict from domestic violence specialists and organisations is a mixed one: some believe this is a milestone in reducing such a widespread issue; others would rather see the funding spent on more worthwhile alternatives. Although only 24 of the 259 responses received by the Government favoured option one, continuing with the current system, it included some ‘big hitters’ in the field such as Refuge and Women’s Aid.

Refuge’s response was that resources should be spent on improving the basic police response to domestic violence rather than introducing new laws. Women’s Aid believed that the police already have adequate powers to disclose information to victims and therefore regulatory changes in this manner would be a waste of resources.

Another case, the murder of Jane Clough in 2010, brought an obvious and somewhat popular solution. Clough was murdered by her former partner, Jonathan Vass, whilst he was on bail, having been accused of raping her. Ms Clough’s parents believed that if Vass had not been bailed, she would still be alive today. This sparked a debate that a lack of prison places is forcing the courts to release dangerous individuals back into society pending trial. A report by the organisation Make Justice Work indicates that increasing prison places does nothing to solve the problem; it simply allows the places to be filled up quickly by low level criminals, leaving the issue no different from before.

The fear of a partner going to prison is often a deterrent for victims to come forward, so a lower level punishment may also work as encouragement to come forward and deal with the problem early on.

The seemingly obvious choice is not always the one that works, however. Finding a way to punish the high-end offenders does nothing to reduce the problem. Instead, the key point in reducing domestic violence is to work with the individuals at the lower end of the scale, aiming to re-educate them to prevent progression. Much like working with petty thieves and drug addicts to prevent them from progressing into career criminals and drug dealers, working with first time offenders who have taken a domestic argument a step too far would be a key step to prevent them from becoming serial abusers, their families being the victims.

The introduction of a specialist community order with a programme requirement , based on improving awareness and anger management, focussing on reducing domestic violence, could be a significant turning point in tackling such a widespread problem from the bottom, rather than waiting for individuals to commit a serious enough offence to be given a custodial sentence.

Of course, only reported crimes can be dealt with. The fear of a partner going to prison is often a deterrent for victims to come forward, so a lower level punishment may also work as encouragement to come forward and deal with the problem early on.

The introduction of such a scheme may be too late to affect those who hold strong views on the matter, but it may be the beginning of a change in awareness and punishments.

Christopher Crawley is a 2nd year LLB student at University of Central Lancashire. He has had previous experience working for the Ministry of Justice, and is a convert from a career in engineering to law, starting in 2009.

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