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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.