Keep the police out of our private lives

Maria Stubbings’ death was terrible, but a public inquiry would lead to even more hamfisted official intervention.

Luke Gittos

Luke Gittos

Topics Politics

The family of Maria Stubbings, who was murdered by her former boyfriend in December 2008, have called on the home secretary, Theresa May, to launch a ‘Stephen Lawrence style’ inquiry into the police failings surrounding her death.

Stubbings was killed by Marc Chivers, who had already been convicted of assaulting Stubbings in July 2008 and was living in the UK after having served 15 years in a German prison for murdering his girlfriend there. The police had attended Stubbings’ address previously that year after she complained that Chivers had entered her house without permission to steal her medication.

The first report by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) had to be removed from the public realm for being inaccurate. The second, published this week, criticised Essex police for their failings in the case, saying there was ‘no co-ordinated, consistent or urgent action’ taken to protect Stubbings and that Essex police ‘should have been far more proactive in order to try and ensure that Ms Stubbings was protected and her murder prevented’.

Stubbings’ case has become a focus point for feminist campaigns around domestic violence. It is seen as a culmination of a culture of misogyny within the police in which female complainants are routinely ignored, and in which opportunities to save vulnerable women are missed. We regularly hear the statistic that two women die every week at the hands of their former partners, a figure from 2005 that ignores a downward trend in these deaths in recent years.

But who exactly would benefit from a Lawrence-style inquiry’? Well, first off, what is a Lawrence-style inquiry? The Macpherson Inquiry – established in relation to the killing of a black London teenager, Stephen Lawrence, in 1993 – examined the failings of the investigation into that case to ensure lessons were learned. But that has already been done in respect of Stubbings’ case. Essex police have acknowledged their failings. Officers are facing disciplinary proceedings. The IPCC has made recommendations. So what exactly do the campaigners want to gain from a new inquiry? Davina James-Hanman, director of the charity Against Violence and Abuse is just one of many campaigners for whom the IPCC’s report falls short. She said: ‘We have had IPCC reports, assurances, and apologies for two decades, and yet we still have dead body after dead body and the same mistakes made over and over.’

In general, calls for a public inquiry have become the reflex response to any kind of problem in public life. Whereas, up until very recently, public inquiries were exceptional events reserved for incidents involving corruption or the abuse of power, today they are used to bolster public confidence in seemingly out-of-touch institutions. This intuitive cry for an inquiry in response to every failure by every public body is a symptom of a society that believes it can use the law to regulate risks away.

In the particular circumstances of the Stubbings case, what could be gained from such an inquiry? Perhaps the inquiry would proceed to recognise a culture of misogyny in the police. What would this lead to? Officers being coerced into arresting people they would not normally arrest? Harsher sentences for those convicted of assaulting their partners? Perhaps home surveillance for ‘at risk’ households’?

It is certainly becoming clear that the authorities are willing to take some quite draconian action in order to be seen to be combating domestic violence. Earlier this year, the Home Office piloted ‘Clare’s Law’ in a number of police forces around the country, which allowed for those who suspected someone of having a criminal conviction for domestic violence to contact the police and apply for disclosure of any relevant offences. The aim was to protect women who had entered into relationships with men who had a violent past. The Home Office, in the consultation which preceded the pilot, described combating domestic violence as their ‘most important task’.

Thus, a public inquiry would be unlikely to draw any further attention to an area already under close scrutiny from legislators and the police. However, it could further bolster the police’s powers to intervene in the most delicate and difficult areas of our private lives. Domestic violence is a deeply complex problem, given that it is so closely bound up with people’s intimate relationships. Unfortunately, it is not a problem which can simply be legislated away. All the law can do is allow the police to intervene to a greater extent, by locking people up for longer, by disclosing the details of an individual’s past or, under the Crime and Security Act of 2007, by ordering them without trial to leave their homes and their families.

Many of the failings identified by the IPCC speak to how difficult these cases are to police. Stubbings herself was informed by the police of Chivers’ conviction for murdering his girlfriend, but tragically it did nothing to protect her. Chivers was plainly a psychotic, violent man. But to apply any ‘lessons’ learned from a case involving him to the wide myriad of cases which could fit the bill as ‘domestic violence’ would do little to help victims. Conversely, it could encourage the police to become involved in more and more cases where their intervention is ill suited.

Luke Gittos is a paralegal working in criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.

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Topics Politics


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