Clare’s Law: a violation of our private lives
The domestic violence disclosure scheme won’t be effective, but it will be intrusive.
Britain’s domestic-violence disclosure scheme – usually referred to as ‘Clare’s Law’ after Clare Wood, who was murdered four years ago by a man she met on Facebook – is to be rolled out across England and Wales in March 2014, having been piloted in Greater Manchester, Wiltshire, Nottinghamshire and Gwent since September 2012. Domestic Violence Protection Orders (DVPOs) will also be introduced nationwide, having been piloted in three police areas between 2011 and 2012. Clare’s Law allows for those concerned about the risk of domestic violence to apply for information from the police about a person’s offending history.
The Home Office described the pilot of Clare’s Law as ‘successful’, claiming it ‘provided more than 100 people with potentially life-saving information’. This is an unusual idea of success. All we know about the outcome of the pilot is that there were 111 disclosures in the four police areas involved. We have no idea to whom the disclosures were made, whether they made any impact, or whether they were constructive or harmful. The extent of the research into the impact of the disclosures on cases of domestic violence amounted to 38 questionnaires returned by those who had taken part in the scheme. Even the Home Office’s assessment questions the value of the questionnaires on the basis that ‘most were completed in the presence of a police officer’ and almost all of them were returned from Greater Manchester alone. The fact that the Home Office is happy simply to assert that the pilot was a ‘success’ in the face of such scant information shows that Clare’s Law was always destined to be rolled out nationally regardless of its efficacy. The pilot was a waste of time.
There are legal and practical issues that make Clare’s Law ridiculous and unworkable. Under section 55 of the Data Protection Act, it is a criminal offence to disclose personal data without the consent of the data controller, in this case the police. This means even those who are potentially at risk could be arrested themselves if they tell anyone what they have found out. And what happens if someone is harmed having been refused information under the scheme? Who rules on whether refusing to provide the information was the correct decision? There is, so far, no guidance at all as to how that decision will be made, leaving the Home Office and police wide open to litigation.
And what of DVPOs, which were introduced to the statute book in 2010? These orders give the police draconian powers to remove those accused of domestic violence from their homes without the need of convicting them in a criminal court. Again, the Home Office’s research following the pilot recorded a ‘mixed reaction’. The conclusion of its assessment boasts that the orders were ‘generally seen positively’ by practitioners and what the Home Office call ‘victim-survivors’. But the paper then proceeds to explain that ‘relatively few perpetrators and victim-survivors took part’, before admitting that ‘we cannot be sure whether their view is representative’.
So these programmes are being rolled out on the basis of dodgy facts and assertion. Which is bizarre when you consider that domestic violence is already being handled well by the authorities with their existing powers. Most powers under DVPOs can already be employed by arresting suspects and putting them on police bail. The roll-out of these new programmes comes at a time when the conviction rate for domestic violence has increased to 70 per cent, and the British Crime Survey has found that domestic violence has been declining since 1993.
There is no evidence that further draconian and far-reaching powers will be helpful to anyone at all, not least the women genuinely affected by domestic violence, who may not want greater involvement of the police in their private lives – not that the Home Office cared to ask them. Indeed, the women’s charity Refuge has opposed Clare’s Law, on the basis that the information disclosed under it is unlikely to help those in genuine need.
In fact, what these laws demonstrate is a casual disregard for the rights of certain women and men to make up their own minds about whether to approach the police. They imply that once someone has been violent, they are forever tarred and forever a risk. And any woman who falls in love with such a man must be given the ‘information’ she needs to make the right choice to walk out of the door. It is worth remembering that it is not only complainants who will be able to seek disclosure under the scheme, but anyone. The laws may be promoted on the basis that they help victims, but they really represent a wholesale trampling on the private lives of those deemed unworthy of privacy by the police, the government and domestic-violence campaigners.
Since the government declared in 2010 that tackling domestic violence was its ‘most important task’, it has set about attacking the private lives of those deemed to be ‘at risk’. These latest laws are a practical disaster and a political blow to the sanctity of people’s private lives. We do nothing for the women affected by domestic violence by making their relationships public concerns, in which we are all entitled to leer. Being affected by domestic violence is a serious and nasty problem, but not one which we or the authorities can magically fix. Once women report their partners for domestic abuse, or it becomes obvious that a woman is in serious danger, the matter becomes a public concern; until then, it is a private matter – one which must remain, in as much as it is outside the reach of the authorities and members of the public, ‘behind closed doors’.
Luke Gittos is law editor at spiked, a paralegal in criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.