Domestic Abuse and Clare’s Law – what is changing?
On Monday 21 January 2019 one of our specialist family solicitors, Rebecca Ranson, appeared on BBC North West Tonight discussing the current proposed overhaul of the law surrounding domestic abuse and the impact of Clare’s Law on victim support. Watch the video here.
Clare Wood was 36 years old when she was murdered by her ex-boyfriend, George Appleton on 2 February 2009. Clare had made numerous disclosures to the police over the months prior to her death, including reporting Mr Appleton for attempted rape and harassment.
Clare had no idea that her former partner had an extensive criminal background, particularly relating to offences of domestic abuse. He had been imprisoned on two separate occasions and had failed to disclose this information to Clare. After her death, Clare’s family were horrified to find out the history of their daughter’s former partner, and felt a great injustice: had this information been disclosed to Clare, she would have had the opportunity to make an informed decision about her relationship with Mr Appleton at the outset.
Clare’s father was a key campaigner for the introduction of the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme, or ‘Clare’s Law’ as it is widely known. This scheme was introduced as a guideline for police forces across the nation in 2014. But what is it?
The concept behind Clare’s Law is to enable victims, or potential victims, of domestic abuse to find out about their partner’s criminal history if they have reason to believe that they are at risk of suffering domestic abuse.
In practice, the scheme was supposed to enable victims to go into any police station, and request disclosure of relevant offences that the partner may have committed in the past. The victim would need to disclose their name, address and date of birth to the police, and the idea was that the police would first assess whether there was an immediate risk of harm to that individual.
If the victim discloses a criminal offence, this would then be acted upon; and if that person disclosed information which indicated a serious risk to their safety, the police would take immediate steps to safeguard that individual.
Does it work?
The issue with Clare’s Law as it currently stands is that the disclosure of such sensitive information is at each police force’s discretion. Therefore, how it works in practice can be completely different across different forces and ultimately, there is the potential for police officers to simply have no idea what it is.
Because Clare’s Law, is a set of guidelines, not a piece of legislation, the police are currently under no obligation to disclose information. The concern therefore, is that victims are being left in a limbo situation where they cannot access the information they need to safeguard themselves against these perpetrators.
The estimate of social cost of domestic abuse in 2016/ 2017 was £66 billion, more than the amount caused by alcohol and drug misuse, cigarettes and obesity control. According to the Home Office’s report into the economic and social cost of domestic abuse, £47 billion of this cost was accrued by the physical and emotional harm of domestic abuse, a cost of £2.3 billion to health services, £1.3 billion to the police and £724 million to victim services.
Around 2 million people are estimated to experience domestic abuse each year, however it is difficult to come to accurate figures as the majority of victims do not report the crimes.
On 21 January 2019, the government published a landmark draft ‘Domestic Abuse Bill’ which includes 120 commitments which aim to tackle domestic abuse. It has been described as the ‘most comprehensive package ever’ and focuses on bringing the issue of domestic abuse to the forefront of society.
In the Queen’s Speech is 2017, domestic abuse was one of the key pledges. Since then, the publication of the draft bill has been delayed due to the current issues regarding Brexit, however the government has finally began the process of putting this pledge into action.
The Bill includes the first statutory government definition of ’domestic abuse’ which goes beyond physical violence and includes psychological and economic abuse. The Bill proposes to give Clare’s Law a statutory footing, meaning that victims would have a legal right to check out the offending history of their partner, and this would no longer be at the police force’s discretion.
The Bill proposes to appoint a national ‘Domestic Abuse Commissioner’ tasked with improving the response and support for victims. It introduces ‘Domestic Abuse Protection Notices’ and ‘Domestic Abuse Protection Orders’ which could compel perpetrators to address drug and alcohol misuse and behaviour management.
A key proposal within the bill aims to prevent perpetrators from cross-examining victims in the family courts, a practice which has come under scrutiny in the media on numerous occasions. Currently, in matters relating to finances, injunctions and children, if a party is unrepresented, then they have the right to attend court as a Litigant in Person. This therefore means that there is the potential that they will be able to cross-examine their victim.
The Bill proposes that if a perpetrator is involved in such proceedings without representation, the court will appoint a barrister to conduct any examination properly and fairly.
In addition to the above, the Bill proposes to introduce new and updated training for police, probation officers, social workers and job centre work coaches to ensure that they are fully aware of the signs of domestic abuse. This is key as many victims do not come forward about the abuse that they are suffering at home. This would therefore enable third parties to offer advice and signpost to appropriate support services for victims who would not necessary have address the issues otherwise.
The draft Bill is definitely a step in the right direction in terms of tackling domestic abuse in the UK and highlighting the extent to which is does happen. It is important to highlight that domestic abuse can happen to anyone, regardless of their sex, social status, race etc.
It is questionable as to how the 120 commitments will work on the ground. For example, the government has only suggested additional funding of £500,000 for victim services, with a particular focus on disabled and elderly persons, LGBTQ and men. Where is the money going to come from for perpetrator’s representation? Surely then, most perpetrators would elect to represent themselves knowing that they will have a barrister appointed to them by the court, rather than instruct their own legal representative?
In terms of Clare’s Law, it is positive news that the government are proposing to legalise this formally as it is imperative that victims, or potential victims, are given the opportunity to access information regarding their partner’s criminal history if they suspect that they, or their children, are at risk of harm.
Time will tell as to whether or not this Bill passes through Parliament and receives Royal Assent. It will now go before the House of Commons to be voted on by MPs and then subsequently the House of Lords. Given the backing of the general public and those driving its introduction, it is hopeful that this come into force as soon as possible to enable victims to begin receiving the support they need.