Clare’s Law (Again)

I’ve written before about Clare’s Law. First in the Guardian, and subsequently on Pink Tape. The latter was just as the pilot scheme was being consulted on, in November 2011. So you might think it rather odd, and I might think it rather rude, that the Telegraph would extensively quote my 2011 blog post some two years later when the situation is rather different. Had they asked I would have told them that my views then were my views then and should not be taken as a comment on the success of the pilot or the roll out of the scheme more broadly. But they didn’t ask. That irks a bit.

But it has prompted me to look at what I said then against the information now available – to see if I was right to be a bit skeptical about the potential of Clare’s Law to make a meaningful dent in the domestic violence epidemic.

Looking back, the things I was worried about in 2011 were broadly these:

  • that women* who were told there was nothing to disclose might be lulled into a false sense of security
  • that resources might be overstretched due to demand and proper support for victims or potential victims might not be available
  • that the cost might be disproportionate to the benefit
  • that disclosing information in itself would not make women less vulnerable to patterns of abusive relationships in future
  • that there might be inconsistency of approach as between forces

Since then a couple of important things have happened. Legal aid has gone for private family disputes, except those where there is evidence of dv. Funding for domestic violence organisations and rape crisis centres has been slashed in many areas. And the pilot has been run for a year (in some ares a bit longer) in four areas of the country.

I don’t know, but I think it’s safe to assume, that the four pilot areas were areas where there was the will and interest to make this work (or at any rate where someone near the top was keen on the idea). Certainly this is true of Wiltshire, where the ACPO lead on DV Brian Moore hails from – and Clare’s Law is his baby. Wiltshire were doing Clare’s Law informally before the pilot even began.

Six months into the pilot this article appeared in the Graun. I have to say I find rather concerning the remarks about how “Until six months ago, women in Ellen’s position have had to rely on their own judgement.” Don’t we need to make their judgment better rather than making them dependent on this scheme? Undoubtedly the woman in the article was assisted in making a good decision about a specific relationship. But she was a victim of more than one violent relationship. The partner in question had already been violent (Just Like Clare Woods as it happens). For someone making good judgments one incident is quite enough information to base a decision on. Safer in the short term perhaps…

However the scheme has been in its own terms, I still think that educating women about how to spot the signs of an abuser is a better investment of money than disclosing information about a specific perpetrator (teach a woman to fish etc).

So, what does the pilot report tell us? Irritatingly, you will not find it linked to by any of the news reports that cover this story – why they think it is informative to link to a 2 year old blog post rather than the actual core document I don’t know but here it is. You’re grown ups. I think you can manage it.

Well, on the value for money point it tells us that each request costs on average £680 to process (extrapolating from the figures this cost about £300k over the pilot period (this cost from only 386 applications in the whole pilot period). I don’t know the figures but I wonder how this compares to the cost of the Freedom Programme or how many support workers could have been funded instead.

Another point raised in the pilot report is the danger that risk to applicants might in fact be raised as a consequence of the disclosure, particularly following a judgment handed down in the course of the pilot which raises the prospect of the police having to consult with perpetrators prior to making a disclosure. That is dealt with in a sentence or two but it seems to me a pretty big issue (and one I haven’t had time to really look at properly today).

Only one application was made by a man in the course of the pilot. I suspect this arises from a combination of differences in need and awareness, most probably predominantly the latter.

The majority of applications were right to know applications rather than right to ask applications – that is to say applications made by agencies who felt an individual needed to be given information for their own safety rather than for individuals seeking out information themselves. There were 380 applications, of which an average of 29% resulted in disclosures, i.e. only 111 individuals have benefitted. I think that is pretty paltry, and it is notable that a disproportionately high number of disclosures were made in the Manchester pilot area (61%). The disclosure rates in the other three pilot areas they are closer to 20% on average. This not only confirms my earlier concern about inconsistency of approach – it also raises a question about the cost-benefit of a scheme of this sort.

Of the 270 odd to whom no disclosure was made, it is apparent that at least some were cases where applications were prompted by hearsay evidence of domestic abuse i.e. gossip, but where there was no police intelligence to back it up. Those who work in this field are well aware of the myriad reasons for not reporting domestic incidents to the police. I still worry that women who feel they’ve checked out their concern, will relax and invest further into a relationship that they might otherwise have been appropriately cautious about. People will readily accept an answer which appears to confirm what they want to be true.

Support services raised concern in the course of the pilot about the potential for risk to be increased in the process of disclosing information to the applicant, and there appears to have been inconsistency in the follow up support offered to applicants (both those who did and did not receive a disclosure). For all the reasons I’ve outlined I would think this is pretty fundamental. Now that there has been a major press splash about the roll out of this scheme (one I might add that has totally failed to dispel the myth this is a system available for women only) awareness and hence uptake is likely to increase. How will already overburdened domestic abuse support services and other statutory agencies manage and absorb this additional burden?

There are three recommendations in the assessment report:

  1. Work with the police to embed routine training on the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme for front-line and specialist domestic abuse police officers and staff (to include consistency of approach when disclosing information).
  2. Work with voluntary and community sector to develop a standard package of support that can be given to individuals who applied for a disclosure via the Right to Ask route where there is no information to disclose.
  3. Develop ways to raise awareness of the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme locally that balances public safety and local agency resources. 

Unfortunately, the Minister’s statement on the roll out doesn’t tell us much about how (or if) the recommendations contained in the assessment report will be implemented.

So where does this leave my 2011 comments? On the whole I’m pretty unswayed. I’m not saying Clare’s Law (or the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme as it is more properly named) is a bad thing. But I do think it brings it’s own risks and I’m not so sure of the benefits when one looks at the bigger picture. I think that it is is policy which illustrates the tendency to oversimplify domestic violence as something that can be solved by information, when in fact it is a far more deep rooted problem that is often interconnected with the emotional and psychological vulnerability of the victims. A strategy to reduce the ill effects of domestic violence must focus on helping individuals to break cycles of behaviour (that is the behaviour of both victim AND perpetrator) rather than simply averting specific incidents.

In the unlikely event that the Telegraph fancy sending me a fee for use of my material (har har) I will donate it to Survive.

*edit : I’ve used “women” all the way through this post to refer to both men and women (as I often do for ease on this blog) – I’m mainly but not exclusively talking about women. I’ve already noted that the scheme is open equally to both sexes.

16 thoughts on “Clare’s Law (Again)

  1. This law is not gender specific, it also allows men to find out about a partner’s record of abuse. I don’t get the sense you understand that when all you talk about is women.

    Do you accept Clare’s Law is not only to protect women, but also to protect men from partners with a history of domestic violence?

  2. Physical violence or the threat of it in a relationship is much more likely to be male-on-female than any other combination but all the other nasty things people can do to each other are equal opps.

    With that in mind: how do the police know that the applicant is genuine and not e.g. a spiteful ex or a rival at work?

    Again: if two people are in the process of setting up together that normally involves a degree of trust and commitment both ways. If W is “checking up” on M with “the authorities” M should be told so that he can say “If that’s how much you trust me, we are through”.

    And finally if there is disclosure it should be limited to convictions. Not acquittals, cases which did not proceed to trial for any reason whatever, or “intelligence” which may be no more than malicious gossip. Convictions on plea or after trial, that is to say when there has been due judicial process and M has been heard.

    Anyone disagree?

  3. I do understand that Brian – in fact I was just logging back on to clarify my use of “women” as I realised I’d been unclear, when I found your comment. I do note in the post that the scheme is open to both men and women. Only one male applicant so far though…

  4. Andrew, the issue you raise was something flagged up at consultation stage I think. It’s not dealt with in the pilot assessment report so I don’t know if its felt to have been an issue in practice. A related concern would be if unreliable intell is disclosed thereby perpetuating misinformation rather than making people better informed. I’m not sure what the policy is ultimately on intell or non-convicts or if there is any consistent policy – suspect it is case by case judgment.

  5. “Only one male applicant so far though…” The media has reported this story as a law giving women the right to find out about men’s past. That has been the case since the start of the process and it is continuing to this day. No wonder men aren’t applying, they don’t know they have rights under the law too.

    Men don’t report domestic abuse against them because they think they’re the only male victim. There was a recent article about Melanie Sykes being cautioned for assaulting her husband, Jack Cockings, but it was said that

    “It is believed that Mr Cockings, …, called police after the row escalated.
    However, he did not require hospital treatment as a result of the attack.”

    !!! – it’s not DV if he isn’t admitted to hospital !!!

    There is a serious lack of balance in the media and society in general. Women can and do attack men, they do cause harm and around 20 men are killed each year by their partners or ex partners. These victims should not be invisible, they should not be ignored.

  6. There are thousands of people who are in relationships with partners who they know to be violent as they suffer at their hands on a regular basis. There are scant funds to help these people or to work out exectly why they choose to stay in their relationships. These cases are far greater in number than the relatively rare case that brought this law into being. Spend the money educating and supporting those victims.

    If the police didn’t already have the powers to be able to inform someone who has unwittingly become involved in relatioship that is a danger to them then it’s right that they should be given those powers. I’m afraid my stock answer to all of the other people seeking answers from the police would be, if you don’t trust this person then don’t be with them. And that advice is free. It involves no paperwork or expensive studies and you need no special training to deliver it.

  7. You say that the scheme is supposed to be open to both men and women, but the impression given on the Home Office website is that it is for women only and it forms part of their campaign to end violence against women and girls. I doubt it will do much to enable that, but it will do even less to prevent DV against men and boys. This is ironic given that it was released in the week the PASK project showed that DV is not gendered, and that most DV is reciprocal.

  8. Brian you’re right that the law is open to both men and women, although on the Home Office web site the details can be found under the section “Ending Violence Against Women and Girls” so you can understand how many men may be unaware of it.

    In principle it’s open to men, but with the extremely low rates of prosecution and conviction of female perpetrators in practice I think the law is of limited utility to heterosexual men.

    Andrew I have read a few reports on domestic violence including academic papers. Most that I’ve read seem to agree that most domestic violence is reciprocal. I have read a couple of others which say that where domestic violence is only perpetrated by one partner, it is more likely to be the woman, but that women are more likely to be injured by domestic violence than men.

    Other than that I agree with you on your points about disclosure and the way it ought to work.

  9. […] I've written before about Clare's Law. First in the Guardian, and subsequently on Pink Tape. The latter was just as the pilot scheme was being consulted on, in November 2011. So you might think it …  […]

  10. […] [Update Nov 13 : This blog post was written in 2011. If you've reached this post via a Telegraph article you (or even if you haven't) you might like to read my more recent post on Clare's Law]. […]

  11. Clare’s Law, from the name on down, has nothing to do with provision of benefit to men in any way so why pretend otherwise?

    Of more obvious interest, will men have an automatic Right to Know regarding this invasion of their privacy?

  12. […] Ingala Smith notes, can be the time that victims are at the most serious risk.  What’s more, as Lucy Reed points out, if women are told there is nothing to report, they may be lulled into a false sense of security, […]

  13. What worries me is that this seems to be one more step along the road of removing personal responsibility from women. (Although men can also ask for disclosure under the scheme, it’s very obviously aimed at women.)

    Back in the 19th century, women were often regarded as being incapable of making their own decisions and running their own lives. And today, we have the same attitude starting to rear its head.

    People talking about rape often put all the emphasis on the actions of the attacker and insist that advising women on how to avoid or reduce the risk of rape means blaming the victim. But every time we say that there is nothing a woman can do to avoid being attacked, we label women as life’s permanent victims, who can only await their fate with properly feminine resignation.

    Encouraging women to rely on ‘the authorities’ to judge the safety of their relationship does the same thing. “Ladies, don’t rely on your own inferior feminine judgement: ask a policeman.”

    Presumably people who ask for information already suspect what the answer might be – because if you suspect the answer is going to be ‘no problem’, there wouldn’t be any point asking the question (there being not enough applications to posit a background check becoming a standard procedure when starting a relationship). So do people ask because they want to be reassured that, despite their suspicions, there is nothing wrong? Or because they want to confirm what their suspicions tell them?

    If the latter, does confirmation really matter? If you have that level of suspicion that your partner might have a record of domestic violence, is this really a healthy relationship?

    If the former, there is a real danger that – as in the OP – women will treat a ‘negative’ result as confirmation of safety, in defiance of their own judgement.

    I can see that knowing that a partner has a previous DV conviction could provide the final push required to end a relationship, which is possibly significant in a society that emphasises the importance of being in a relationship, particularly for women. But, like the OP, I wonder if it is a cost-effective way of tackling the problem of women (or men) staying in relationships in which they suspect (or know) they are unsafe.

    • Jen, Couldn’t agree more. Although, with ref to your last paragraph I have direct experience of one case where the police made a disclosure to my client about her partner’s very violent past (not under the scheme, just under general powers) and she did ultimately make the break. However, she didn’t make the break as a result of police disclosure because they did not give her the details and he was able to explain it away. She only made the break after we got full police disclosure within children proceedings and I insisted she read the very graphic witness statement of a previous victim. She left the room to be sick and subsequently broke it off. The problem wasn’t really the lack of information it was a judgment issue. She did need protecting from him, but I don’t think the police action (or mine) left her any less vulnerable to making poor choices in future.

  14. I believe the figures from the Crime Survey indicate that one in four women experience domestic violence and one in five men.
    I would imagine the scheme also applies to same sex relationships.

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