Clare’s Law and the end of human intimacy
The flurry of domestic-violence disclosures is nothing to celebrate.
The UK domestic-violence disclosure scheme, which was rolled out nationwide by the Home Office last year, is proving worryingly popular. Data released last week revealed that 1,335 disclosures have been made, following 3,760 applications. The scheme allows anyone to contact the police and request information about a person’s previous convictions. Inquiries can be made into an individual by anyone, from their own partner to a family member to a concerned member of the public. The scheme also allows the police to disclose information if they conclude that a person has a ‘right to know’ about their partner’s past. The scheme is called Clare’s Law, named after Clare Wood, who was tragically murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 2009.
The number of applications ending in a disclosure varied widely across different police forces. This suggests that the criteria for making a disclosure following an application is not being applied consistently. Labour MP and former minister Hazel Blears said that, notwithstanding the apparent arbitrary nature of decision-making, the scheme had been of ‘great assistance’ to those who had obtained information.
But does the number of applications really mean that the scheme is a success? Does this mean that 1,335 women have been saved from violence? Of course not. In fact, there is no way to know whether the disclosures have had any positive impact at all. When the scheme was announced, concerns were raised by domestic-violence campaigners that it merely disclosed information without offering any support for women who may want to act on it. The scheme suggests that all that is keeping women in violent relationships is a lack of knowledge about their partner’s past. Unfortunately, reality is often more complicated than that. Genuine victims of domestic violence are unlikely to find the scheme of any assistance. After all, if they have been victims themselves, the knowledge of their partner’s past is unlikely to be much of a revelation.
The scheme also has draconian consequences for those whose information is disclosed. Criminal convictions already have a perpetual effect on people, with endless obligations to disclose convictions to new employers. Stories abound of adults being prevented from following a chosen career because of some youthful dalliance with the criminal-justice system. Even a caution, which can be doled out at the police station for a wide range of extremely minor offences, remains on your criminal record for the rest of your life.
Of course, proponents of the scheme will say that the convictions disclosed would be ‘relevant’, and therefore exclude any old convictions for minor offences. But who is to judge what constitutes relevance? Given the varying rate of disclosures across police forces, the police seem to disagree about what constitutes a ‘relevant’ conviction. Given the apparent inadequacy of the scheme’s safeguards, it is tragic that this obsessive screening, this relentless unearthing of the past, has intruded into people’s private relationships with no observable benefit to anyone involved.
Last year, home secretary Theresa May declared it was the government’s intention to ‘eradicate’ domestic violence. This scheme shows that such an intention has dangerously draconian consequences. Clare’s Law has no observable benefit for genuine victims of domestic violence and subjects those with violent pasts to a neverending cycle of snooping and humiliation.
But more than this, it directly intrudes on human relationships. Part of feeling safe and secure with another person is the knowledge that your partner can judge you on your character in the present, and that your past is something you share as you both see fit. Functioning human relationships demand the ability for those involved to hold back information if they choose. There will, sadly, always be those tragic instances where we imagine that the law could have stepped in earlier, or that just letting a woman know about her partner’s shady past would have given her the strength to up and leave. But we must resist such a simplistic understanding of the causes of domestic violence, and the turbulent nature of the relationships in which it takes place. The sad truth is that the law could never eradicate domestic violence without eroding trust and demolishing the private sphere – the very conditions which allow human intimacy to exist.
Luke Gittos is law editor at spiked, a solicitor practising criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.