We’re not all abusers until proven innocent

In casting us all as domestic abusers until the cops say otherwise, ‘Clare’s Law’ gives relationships a battering.

Gabrielle Shiner

Topics Politics

‘Innocent until proven guilty’ is a luxury that we can’t afford in our personal relationships. At least that is the message the implementation of the domestic-violence disclosure scheme – dubbed ‘Clare’s Law’ – is sending to the UK public. The scheme has few supporters and is not likely to bring about a significant decrease in the number of domestic-violence victims. But what it is guaranteed to do is help foster a climate of fear and suspicion.

Clare’s Law is the product of an emotional campaign following the tragic death of Clare Wood, who, in 2009, was murdered by an ex-boyfriend in Salford, Greater Manchester. It emerged afterwards that her former partner had a record of violent behaviour towards women, prompting Wood’s father, Michael Brown, to start lobbying for women to be warned about such individuals by the police: ‘If you were in danger, wouldn’t you want to know? The ladies in this country are not being warned.’

The law is intended to prevent further tragedies, ‘by ensuring that there is a clear framework in place with recognised and consistent processes for disclosing information’. It will initially be piloted in four police-force areas, testing both a ‘right to ask’ and ‘right to know’ scheme. A ‘right to ask’ scheme ensures that an individual’s history of convictions is made available by the police upon request, so someone concerned about a partner’s behaviour can check if they’ve acted criminally in the past. The ‘right to know’ scheme goes further and would entail, in the words of Home Office minister Lynne Featherstone, the police ‘pro-actively knowing the history of someone, and going and informing that woman’.

The government’s own assessment of the scheme is that it will, at best, reduce domestic violence by half a per cent. Sandra Horley, chief executive of Refuge, a charity dedicated to helping the victims of domestic violence, has criticised the implementation of ‘costly, bureaucratic new schemes,’ when the police ‘simply need to understand and implement the law as it stands’. The police already have the power to disclose information regarding an individual’s past convictions, if they believe that the information could protect a potential victim.

Horley’s criticisms of Clare’s Law are entirely legitimate, but there is something more fundamentally problematic about the way this scheme positions our relationship to the state, as well as the social attitude that it would promote. Beginning with Sarah’s Law, the child sex offender disclosure scheme, and now with the development of Clare’s Law, there is a trend towards systematically entrenching paranoia and distrust into our personal relationships. We are increasingly being encouraged to see others as being potentially violently dangerous until ‘proven’ otherwise. Clare’s Law reinforces the mindset that anyone could be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and leaves it up to the state to expose their hidden nature.

Creating a pervasive attitude of suspicion fortifies a unilateral dynamic, in which trust within the network of individual members of society deteriorates and is redirected towards the state. The scheme is meaningless unless men and women actually go to the police to enquire about other individuals in the early stages of developing intimate relationships. Clare’s Law rests on the adoption of this mentality of deep distrust. We already have the ‘right to ask’, so the formalisation of this process has absolutely no reason to exist, if not to promote fear and suspicion of others.

The ‘right to know’ is particularly problematic in this sense, because, not only does it work away at the bonds created within the social network, it usurps self-dependency by making it a responsibility of the state to inform people about potentially dangerous or unhealthy relationships that they might be entering into. There are, of course, practical problems with this, because the police simply don’t have information about the majority of abusers. A ‘right to know’ scheme encourages a reliance on the state for something far too complex and intimate for it to effectively deal with, which could even backfire on the very people it is intended to protect.

The implementation of Clare’s Law is motivated by an emotional desire to put an end to the real horrors of domestic violence. In reality, the scheme is completely insubstantial and unnecessary. It is a scheme driven by fear, which will generate a paranoia that will end up doing far more harm than good to personal relationships. If we want to tackle domestic violence, we should focus on supporting informal social networks and ensuring that the police efficiently and effectively respond to calls for help. Undermining the trust and respect that is developed in intimate relationships will only leave individuals and society worse off.

Gabrielle Shiner is on the executive board of European Students For Liberty and studies English at Queen Mary, University of London. She is one of the organisers of Liberty League, which holds its three-day Freedom Forum between 30 March and 1 April 2012.

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Topics Politics


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