Violent men: A woman’s right to know

WOMEN would be able to seek information about the domestic violence history of new partners under plans to be proposed by senior police officers in Scotland.
Picture: TSPLPicture: TSPL
Picture: TSPL

The Association of Scottish Police Superintendents (Asps) is this week expected to back calls for the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme – known as Clare’s Law – which is being piloted by four forces in England and Wales, and could be extended north of the Border.

The Association’s annual conference is also likely to support the introduction of Domestic Abuse Protection Orders in Scotland, which would require men with a history of violence in the home to disclose previous convictions themselves.

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And in a further extension of Clare’s Law, some senior officers also want police to be able to share information about known abusers with potential victims, even though this may breach data protection laws.

The proposals will be submitted to the conference by Chief Superintendent David O’Connor, the president of Asps. Although the initiatives are likely to prove controversial with human rights campaigners, both the Scottish Government and Police Scotland have indicated that they would support a pilot scheme north of the Border. They have made tackling domestic abuse a priority in Scotland where cases have risen by two-thirds over the last decade.

O’Connor said: “We need a deeper understanding of what domestic abuse is, what it’s like to be a victim, and why do we wait for a person to be victimised by a known suspect who has a dangerous background.

“We believe it is time to remove doubt and uncertainty over sharing information. I would far rather share it, under certain conditions, with someone who could become a victim and allow them to make a choice. I would far rather prevent a crime than wait until something happens, particularly if that’s information we already have.”

At present, O’Connor believes many community officers, who may see a known offender start a relationship with someone new, want to warn them but are unclear on where they stand legally. “They want to be supported in doing what is needed in the interests of a person or family,” he said.

“I’ve no doubt people will come out [with concerns about] human rights, but this is about keeping people safe [and] giving them information. That already exists with sex offenders; now we’re focusing here on violence in the home. There are cases where people have been murdered by a partner who has a history of this type of behaviour.”

A spokeswoman said: “The Scottish Government has followed with interest the Clare’s Law pilots in England and Wales and would welcome the opportunity to discuss these proposals with the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents. Police Scotland has made clear their strong commitment to tackle domestic abuse, which is a view the Scottish Government firmly shares.”

A Police Scotland spokesman said: “We are aware of the pilot, will monitor it and see if there is potential for its use in Scotland.”

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But John Scott, a human rights lawyer, said he had concerns about the scheme. “I am not sure the police are the right people to make the judgment or that they have the right training to handle it in every single case,” he said.

“Domestic abuse prevention orders might make more sense. The question is about proportionality. It’s less problematic, I think, if someone goes into a police station and says I want any information about my prospective partner. Police and state have a duty of care to them.”

Jenny Marra, a Scottish Labour MSP and member of the justice committee, said any expansion of Clare’s Law must be based on evidence that it works. “We would be in favour of a pilot,” Marra said. “Anything that can be properly proven to prevent domestic abuse we have to look at and take seriously.”

Two cases in Scotland highlight the concerns. In August 2011, in Glasgow, a man who admitted violently abusing women over a 30-year period was jailed for nine years. Joseph Loughran, 51, had pleaded guilty to a string of brutal attacks on five women from 1980 to 2009. He was described as having an “appalling history of domestic violence”. Also in 2011, Frank Moore, 43, who was described in court as having a history of domestic violence, was convicted of murder after attacking his former girlfriend Lynsey Methven and her partner Stewart Taylor early in the morning at her flat after a campaign of harassment that lasted weeks. Taylor, a 33-year-old chef, died while Methven survived the attack.

The pilots in Gwent, Wiltshire, Nottinghamshire and Greater Manchester police forces will run until September, after which a decision will be taken on whether to roll them out across the whole of England and Wales.

Chief Constable Carmel Napier, lead on domestic abuse within the Association of Chief Police Officers in England and Wales, said: “The Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme is intended to empower people to make informed decisions to protect themselves and their children when getting involved with a new partner. It will also allow police to act in the best interests of people they believe could be at risk of violence by sharing information of a partners’ violent past.”

Clare’s Law: knowledge is power

CLARE’S Law was launched following the murder of Clare Wood, 36, by her former partner in Greater Manchester in 2009.

Like Sarah’s Law, which allows parents controlled access to the sex offenders register following the murder of Sarah Payne in 2000 by a known paedophile, Clare’s Law is the result of a campaign by the victim’s family.

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In Clare’s case, Michael Brown discovered his daughter had been lied to by George Appleton about his past and his three previous convictions under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

Clare’s Law can be used by someone concerned about a partner’s abusive behaviour or by a third party worried about someone in a potentially dangerous relationship.

Requests go to the police, social and probation services, and child protection bodies, but information is disclosed only if an imminent risk is perceived. Should those receiving information divulge it, they risk prosecution.

Analysis by Heather Coady: Risk assessment vital

DOMESTIC abuse is a devastating crime, one which can quite literally destroy lives.

Increased legal protection for victims and a more sensitive response on the part of the police is making some difference, and may account for the increase in calls to the police as victims become more confident of an appropriate response.

Plans to warn women who are beginning a relationship with a known abuser may begin to shift the focus of attention more on to the abuser and will no doubt be viewed as a sound preventative approach towards stopping domestic abuse.

However, it is important to bear in mind that the vast majority of women experiencing domestic abuse do not contact the police, perhaps in part due to the fact that most perpetrators are not held to account and far too many 999 calls from victims result in no further action.

Plans to warn potential victims may not have the kind of reach anticipated and are likely to focus on more extreme and overtly violent cases, missing the vast majority.

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Our greatest concern, however, is that where they have been informed and there has been no risk assessment or safety planning conducted, victims could be left without protection or support and at increased risk. Risk increases when an attempt is made to leave and the homicide and serious injuries statistics speak for themselves and are horrifying. It is concerning therefore that, should they choose to continue with the relationship, then the responsibility for any abuse suffered may be placed on the victim rather than on the abuser, and they may not be treated with the appropriate seriousness and sensitivity.

What is most needed is systematic training and a skilled approach towards risk assessment that could effectively underpin this proactive innovation, but which would also be of benefit to women who won’t necessarily be aware until too late that they are having a relationship with someone who will ultimately hurt them, control them and damage their lives.

• Heather Coady is a policy officer at Scottish Women’s Aid