Dr Nicole Renehan from our Department of Sociology, together with project partners Professor Sandra Walklate (Liverpool University) and Dr Charlotte Barlow (University of Central Lancashire) discuss whether Clare’s Law, otherwise known as the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme, is working and if it is fit for purpose.
Media coverage of Wiltshire Police’s response under Clare’s Law and the inquest into the domestic murder of Terri Harris, alongside her two children and their friend, has put Clare’s Law back under the spotlight. Clare’s Law (more formally known as the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme) allows the police to disclose the criminal records of those who may pose a risk to intimate partners. However, despite Home Office assurances that Clare’s Law ‘does work’, Terri’s mother claims the scheme is ‘not fit for purpose’.
Clare’s Law was introduced following a highly public campaign led by Clare Wood’s father who was of the view that, if only he and Clare had known more about the perpetrator’s background of violence towards women then her murder would have been prevented. Yet as the IPPC report on Clare Wood’s death evidenced, Clare was already aware of his violence toward her.
The assumption that knowledge leads to women leaving relationships is a commonly held sentiment, fundamentally misunderstanding the position many women living with domestic abuse find themselves in. Nevertheless, this scheme introduced by Teresa May’s government in 2014, was heralded as an important criminal justice asset for preventing and protecting women from domestic abuse. Indeed, under the 2021 Domestic Abuse Act (England and Wales), Clare’s Law was put on a statutory footing with revised guidance issued to all police forces.
Ten years on from its introduction, problems remain in delivering the intended aims of Clare’s Law. It assumes it can deliver protection, yet our research funded by the British Academy suggests that such an assumption is problematic. A major problem for delivering protection is information sharing.
As our study suggests, Clare’s law places too much responsibility on the victim-survivor to act on the information received (assuming it is accurate) and simultaneously reduces the responsibility of state professionals should the woman fail to act on the information given. The result is victim blaming. Indeed, the women in our study blamed themselves and were blamed by others for the nature their relationships. The question remains then, where and how might Clare’s Law fit for women living with, or suspect they are in a relationship with, a domestic abuse perpetrator?
For the women in our study, there were three ways in which having Clare’s Law information might work: when it was shared, who shared it, and how fitted with their real lives.
The question of when information is shared is an important one. Women will only act on what they know or what they are told when they are ready to do so. The barriers to doing otherwise are both immense and well-documented in the literature. Enabling women to act includes having information but also includes having support from family, friends, having the financial resources, alternative housing opportunities and so on. Simply telling a woman, especially if she has not requested the information herself, her partner has a history of abuse is only going to add to her concerns. In the longer term, such information may assist her if the right kind of contact with the right support services are in place.
The question of who shares the information raises a slightly different issue. Clare’s Law assumes information flows from criminal justice professionals (and others) to women, that they are legally prohibited from sharing outside of the disclosure process itself. The women in our study, however, reported sharing and receiving personal domestic abuse experiences from their partners’ ex-partners; frequently from women previously not known to them. This is side-ways or a more democratic information sharing process. The ‘top-down’ approach of policy seems to operate as if the democratic practices of people’s real lives do not exist and/or is not meaningful for those participating in Clare’s Law. Notably, women’s sharing of their domestic abuse experiences, as our data illustrates, did in some cases function as a red flag prompting victim-survivors to seek a formal disclosure from the police. For others, abusive men circumvented such effort by using victim-blaming strategies to prevent them from leaving the relationship. The woman’s decision to leave was a culmination of many pieces of information from various sources, suggesting agencies tasked with sharing disclosures should engage victim-survivors in ongoing conversations to explore the diverse options they might have and when they might be best placed to take them.
Our research speaks strongly to the need for policies of all kinds in relation to domestic abuse to make a space for appreciating women’s real lives, especially. Women living with violence, as do all women, engage in safety work on a routine, daily basis. The women who participated in our study knew how to keep themselves and their children safe. Offering them more information in the absence of any other kind of support only served to make them further responsible for the men’s violence in their lives.
Adding these research findings to the catalogue of inept information sharing documented in the HM Inspectorate of Probation Report on Damien Bendall, and the recent review of Clare’s Law in Wiltshire as set out by the IOPC, the picture is clear. This scheme is not working for the women for whom it is intended either in its own terms or in theirs.
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