It is difficult to argue with a bereaved father who believes that his daughter would still be alive had she known about her partner’s violent past. Clare Wood was murdered by George Appleton in 2009 – a man she had met on Facebook.
She had no idea that her new boyfriend had a history of assaulting women and had spent time in prison. Michael Brown is convinced that his daughter would not have been sucked into an abusive and, ultimately, fatal relationship had she known the full facts.
It is from this painful sense of “if only” that Clare’s law sprang last year – a scheme which allows women who have concerns about a new partner to go to the police and ask for the appropriate background checks.
This week, it was rolled out across England and Wales following trials in Greater Manchester, Nottinghamshire, Wiltshire and Gwent. The Home Secretary, Theresa May – an enthusiastic backer of Clare’s law – believes it will provide women (and men) with the information they need to escape abusive relationships. Certainly the need to tackle domestic violence is pressing: 88 women were killed by their current or former partner last year in England and Wales. In Scotland, the figure is also far too high and there are signs that a similar system of “right to know” checks may be introduced here.
Only, there is a problem. However sincere and well-intentioned Clare’s law may be, it is difficult to see how it can save women from violent men. It certainly wouldn’t have saved Clare Wood. She might not have known much about her partner’s history in the beginning but by the time George Appleton killed her she had already suffered months of abuse. It is doubtful that she would have needed a police officer to confirm that she was living with a man who was capable of beating her black and blue. She stayed, like so many victims of domestic abuse do. Indeed, it would be interesting to know how many women would actually leave a partner based on a warning from a background check. Given the controlling, obsessive nature of such relationships it is unlikely that many would walk away. And surely, if any woman felt it necessary to access that kind of information, haven’t they already answered their own question?
But perhaps the most worrying thing about Clare’s law is that it puts the onus on victims. It seems to say to women – for it is mainly women who are abused by men – that it is up to them to spot a wrong ’un. If they fail to pick up on the signs before the punches rain down, they only have themselves to blame – a quick visit to the local police station could have settled matters sooner. It seems obvious to say it, but victims need to be supported, not judged. They need to be encouraged to report violence, not somehow pre-empt it. And of course the role of the police must be more than that of boyfriend vetter.
If Clare Wood’s case has taught us anything, it is that the police must take a more active role in protecting women, not shift responsibility. It should be remembered that Clare, the mother of a ten-year-old child, could well have been saved – not by a background check, but by the police. When she did leave her partner the resources she needed and deserved weren’t available. It took officers 24 hours to respond to her last emergency call. By the time they arrived, she had been strangled by Appleton and her body set on fire. The Independent Police Complaints Commission concluded that she had been let down by “individual and systemic” failures by Greater Manchester Police and that officers had demonstrated a “shocking lack of understanding” about the nature of domestic violence.
That lack of understanding may well be why a number of charities, including Refuge, have raised concerns about Clare’s law. The sad fact is, a quick trawl through the records won’t stop someone attacking or killing their partner. The real issue is supporting women who do find the courage to leave. That requires serious funding, better and earlier intervention, more places of safety and refuge – not a headline-grabbing law named after another victim.