Domestic abuse is a common theme in family law but new legislation is a positive step towards a solution, says Catherine Thomas.
Clare’s Law, officially titled the Domestic Violence Disclosure scheme, came into force across England and Wales this month. The law is named after Clare Wood who, disturbingly, was strangled and set on fire by her ex-boyfriend, George Appleton, in 2009. He had a history of violence against women, including harassment and the kidnapping at knifepoint of one his ex-girlfriends, a fact of which Clare was unaware.
Since September 2012, the scheme has been trialled by four police forces: Gwent, Wiltshire, Greater Manchester and Nottinghamshire with the success of the pilot schemes allowing more than 100 people to gain information on partners who could have violent tendencies. The law allows anyone who is worried about their partner’s past to have disclosed to them that person’s criminal records. The law also includes another strand; the right to know. This allows the police proactively to disclose information in prescribed circumstances.
Whilst the law on the face of it may seem a good idea it isn’t without its critics. In essence, it gives a name to powers that are already held by the police. They already hold common law powers to disclose information relating to previous convictions or charges to the public where there is a pressing need for such disclosure in order to prevent further crime. There is also fair criticism that suggests the feminine branding of such a law fails to take into consideration men who are victims of domestic abuse. Indeed, some critics have gone so far as to imply that such a one-sided gender branding of domestic violence encourages an attitude of shame and secrecy for men who are victims of the crime.
In a written statement to the House of Commons, Home Secretary Theresa May said, “Domestic abuse shatters lives; Clare’s Law provides people with the information they need to escape an abusive situation before it ends in tragedy. The national scheme will ensure that more people can make informed decisions about their relationship and escape if necessary.”
Charities specialising in support for victims of domestic violence have responded to this statement with concern, citing the low reporting rates of domestic violence victims to the police and a fall in the number of cases referred for prosecution. The Crime Survey for England and Wales records a fall in the number of cases referred at 13 per cent. This raises questions of whether the law could create a false sense of security for women who ask if their partner has a history of violence and are told there is no record of any convictions. That is not, of course, a guarantee that their partner is not violent.
A more balanced view is that Clare’s Law has good intentions, but can only be effective when coupled with support networks for the victims of domestic violence to give them the strength to escape the relationship and report their abuser. This is difficult at present with the funding cuts to women’s services that run refuges and domestic violence support centres. There is also a larger issue that was at the heart of Clare Wood’s case: why did it take so long for the police to respond to concerns about Clare’s partner and so long to act? There is a vast discrepancy between the response times of different police forces, but after long periods of reduction in police funding, such delays may well increase rather than decrease.
As a family lawyer I see issues of domestic violence all too often. Civil law provides protection in such situations by way of non-molestation orders and occupation orders. Non-molestation orders prohibit someone from using or threatening violence amongst other things. Occupation orders regulate who can live in the family home, and can even restrict an abuser from entering the surrounding area. When necessary we apply to the court for these orders in tandem in order to provide our clients with the utmost protection, but not everyone is in a position to instruct a lawyer and obtain these civil protections. Criminal law must therefore continue to develop to provide greater protection against domestic abuse.
Although the launch of Clare’s Law is clearly a step in the right direction by assisting in the prevention of repeat incidents of domestic violence, it is a remedy rather than a cure to the problem. It is heartening that the issue continues to hold the public’s attention, but the work to eradicate domestic abuse is far from done.