Will Clare's Law really help reduce domestic violence?

Not everyone with prior domestic violence convictions goes on to reoffend.

In 2009, Clare Wood, from Salford, Greater Manchester, was strangled to death and her body set alight by her former boyfriend, George Appleton. His body was found hanged 6 days later in an abandoned pub in the Greater Manchester area.

This was a particularly high-profile crime, and received much attention in the national press. The murder was the culmination of a series of incidents of domestic violence in the couple’s relationship, many of which were reported to the local Police Force, but no action was taken. An IPCC report found Greater Manchester Police to be guilty of “systematic failures” in relation to the case.

An inquest delivered a verdict of unlawful killing. Upon hearing this verdict, Wood's father, Michael Brown, seemed to suggest that domestic violence was particularly commonplace in the UK. This sentiment was echoed by former Home Office minister, Lynne Featherstone, who stated that we need to:

“deal with domestic violence which is unacceptable and epidemic in this country”

However, according to the British Crime Survey of 2011, incidents of “intimate partner violence” have fallen by around 50 per cent over the past 20 years. This only goes to show how mainstream media reporting can significantly skew official statistics and, with it, public understanding of particularly emotive topics.

A campaign, designed to allow people entering into new relationships to access information about potential partners’ propensity for domestic violence, was founded shortly after the inquest into Clare Wood's death. This was backed by Clare’s father, her local MP, Hazel Blears, and eventually by Home Secretary, Theresa May, who stated that:

“The Government is committed to ensuring that the police and other agencies have the tools necessary to tackle domestic violence to bring offenders to justice and ensure victims have the support they need to rebuild their lives”

The Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme (DVDS) pilot scheme will run for an initial 12 months, and allows anyone living in the areas covered by the pilot forces (Gwent, Greater Manchester, Wiltshire, and Nottinghamshire), to apply to their local police force for information on prospective partners’ previous involvement in violent crime.

But do we need a scheme like DVDS, and will it be effective?

Whilst research shows that previous violence is the single biggest predictor of future violence, and this is possibly the rationale behind the introduction of the DVDS pilot scheme, it should be noted that not everyone with historical convictions for violent crimes go on to beat his or her future partners.

Many have concerns about the information being provided under DVDS legislation. It could be the case that many applications for information will return false-negative results (that is, police could report no previous record of violence, despite a history of violent behaviour). This is due to the under-reporting of domestic violence, with an estimate 50 per cent of all cases of domestic violence going unrecorded due to factors such as the victim believing the issue to be a private one, low prosecution levels, or fear of additional attacks. Even where cases of domestic violence are reported, success of the DVDS is dependent on police forces taking appropriate actions in order to record complaints and protect potential victims. 

And what about the impact of the DVDS on ex-offenders? 

Many people who, after being convicted and appropriately punished for committing violent crimes, begin to rebuild their lives in the community. Schemes such as the DVDS have a potentially destructive effect on their journey towards desistance from crime.

Desistance is the process by which an ex-offender adopts a non-criminal identity. This is often a long and difficult journey, beginning in prison, and continuing through into the community upon release. Official statistics suggest that around 60 per cent of prisoners are re-convicted with 12 months of release – a figure used by populist media outlets as evidence for longer and harsher sentencing. 

However, a group of desistance scholars had the idea to look towards a group who may shed some light on how people move away from crime – the 40 per cent who are not reconvicted. Their research led to the development of a documentary, The Road from Crime, which provides an insightful analysis of the desistance process.

Findings from US-based research into “Megan’s Law”, a scheme whereby parents can apply for information about a person’s previous sexual offending, found that over-surveillance was in fact a risk factor for future offending. This has clear implications for the DVDS scheme, which could be seen as preventing ex-offenders from forming meaningful personal relationships – a factor considered to be key to long-term desistance.

Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights states that:

“Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life … [and] … There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except … in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

Research suggests that, after desisting from crime for three years, you are no more likely to engage in crime than anybody else.  Surely continuing to monitor those who seem to be desisting is potentially depriving them of opportunities to form long-term intimate relationships, and therefore contravenes Article 8?

In short, although any bid to reduce the numbers of people being victimised by domestic violence is to be commended, the DVDS pilot has many issues to address before being completely failsafe. More active solutions to the domestic violence problem should be examined, such as more efficient system for relationship education and problem solving skills in schools, as opposed to the government’s current, reactionary, approach to criminal justice. Failing to do so potentially puts people at risk of re-offending, and could lead to complaints being made under Human Rights law.

Photograph by Elvert Barnes on Flickr, via Creative Commons.

The Domestic Violence Awareness Mural: "A Survivor's Journey" (2010) by Joel Bergner in Brooklyn, New York. Photograph: Elvert Barnes/Flickr

Craig is a forensic psychology blogger interested in evidence-based criminal justice and desistance from crime. He tweets as @CraigHarper19.

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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.