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Will Clare's Law really help reduce domestic violence?

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

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

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.