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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A new German law wants to force mothers to reveal their child’s biological father

The so-called “milkmen’s kids law” would seek protection for men who feel they have been duped into raising children they believe are not biologically theirs – at the expense of women’s rights.

The German press call them “Kuckuckskinder”, which translates literally as “cuckoo children” – parasite offspring being raised by an unsuspecting innocent, alien creatures growing fat at the expense of the host species’ own kind. The British press have opted for the more Benny Hill-esque “milkmen’s kids”, prompting images of bored Seventies housewives answering the door in negligées before inviting Robin Asquith lookalikes up to their suburban boudoirs. Nine months later their henpecked husbands are presented with bawling brats and the poor sods remain none the wiser.

Neither image is particularly flattering to the children involved, but then who cares about them? This is a story about men, women and the redressing of a legal – or is it biological? – injustice. The children are incidental.

This week German Justice Minister Heiko Maas introduced a proposal aimed at to providing greater legal protection for “Scheinväter” – men who are duped into raising children whom they falsely believe to be biologically theirs. This is in response to a 2015 case in which Germany’s highest court ruled that a woman who had told her ex-husband that her child may have been conceived with another man could not be compelled to name the latter. This would, the court decided, be an infringement of the woman’s right to privacy. Nonetheless, the decision was seen to highlight the need for further legislation to clarify and strengthen the position of the Scheinvater.

Maas’ proposal, announced on Monday, examines the problem carefully and sensitively before merrily throwing a woman’s right to privacy out of the window. It would compel a woman to name every man she had sexual intercourse with during the time when her child may have been conceived. She would only have the right to remain silent in cases should there be serious reasons for her not to name the biological father (it would be for the court to decide whether a woman’s reasons were serious enough). It is not yet clear what form of punishment a woman would face were she not to name names (I’m thinking a scarlet letter would be in keeping with the classy, retro “man who was present at the moment of conception” wording). In cases where it did transpire that another man was a child’s biological father, he would be obliged to pay compensation to the man “duped” into supporting the child for up to two years.

It is not clear what happens thereafter. Perhaps the two men shake hands, pat each other on the back, maybe even share a beer or two. It is, after all, a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, a transaction which takes place over the heads of both mother and child once the latter’s paternity has been established. The “true” father compensates the “false” one for having maintained his property in his absence. In some cases there may be bitterness and resentment but perhaps in others one will witness a kind of honourable partnership. You can’t trust women, but DNA tests, money and your fellow man won’t let you down.

Even if it achieves nothing else, this proposal brings us right back to the heart of what patriarchy is all about: paternity and ownership. In April this year a German court ruled that men cannot be forced to take paternity tests by children who suspect them of being their fathers. It has to be their decision. Women, meanwhile, can only access abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and even then counselling is mandatory (thereafter the approval of two doctors is required, similar to in the UK). One class of people can be forced to gestate and give birth; another can’t even be forced to take a DNA test. One class of people can be compelled to name any man whose sperm may have ventured beyond their cervix; another is allowed to have a body whose business is entirely its own. And yes, one can argue that forcing men to pay money for the raising of children evens up the score. Men have always argued that, but they’re wrong.

Individual men (sometimes) pay for the raising of individual children because the system we call patriarchy has chosen to make fatherhood about individual ownership. Women have little choice but to go along with this as long as men exploit our labour, restrict our access to material resources and threaten us with violence. We live in a world in which it is almost universally assumed that women “owe” individual men the reassurance that it was their precious sperm that impregnated us, lest we put ourselves and our offspring at risk of poverty and isolation. Rarely do any of us dare to protest. We pretend it is a fair deal, even that reproductive differences barely affect our lives at all. But the sex binary – the fact that sperm is not egg and egg is not sperm – affects all of us.

The original 2015 ruling got it right. The male demand for reassurance regarding paternity is an infringement of a woman’s right to privacy. Moreover, it is important to see this in the context of all the other ways in which men have sought to limit women’s sexual activity, freedom of movement and financial independence in order to ensure that children are truly “theirs”.  Anxiety over paternity is fundamentally linked to anxiety over female sexuality and women’s access to public space. Yet unless all women are kept under lock and key at all times, men will never, ever have the reassurance they crave. Even then, the abstract knowledge that you are the only person to have had the opportunity to impregnate a particular woman cannot rival the physical knowledge of gestation.

We have had millennia of pandering to men’s existential anxieties and treating all matters related to human reproduction, from sex to childbirth, as exceptional cases meaning women cannot have full human rights. Isn’t it about time we tried something new? How about understanding fatherhood not as winning gold in an Olympic sperm race, but as a contract endlessly renewed?

What each of us receives when a child is born is not a biological entity to do with as we choose. It is a relationship, with all of its complexities and risks. It is something worth contributing to and fighting for. Truly, if a man cannot understand that, then any money wasted on a Kuckuckskind – a living, breathing child he could get to know – has got to be the least of his worries. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.