The right to know

by Apr 09, 2012 No Comments

Should a new domestic violence scheme be adopted in Scotland? 

New measures that will allow people in England and Wales to find out if their partner has a history of domestic violence have prompted calls north of the border for similar powers.

The policy has been described by supporters as a vital tool in the campaign against domestic abuse, but some critics of the scheme have said it is unlikely to make any difference and that money would be better invested in training police to better recognise problems.

Clare’s Law follows a campaign by Michael Brown, from Aberdeen, whose daughter, Clare Wood, was murdered in 2009 by her exboyfriend, George Appleton, at her home in, Greater Manchester.

Mother-of-one Ms Wood, 36, was unaware of Appleton’s history of violence against women, including repeated harassment and kidnapping one woman at knifepoint.

Ms Wood made several complaints to the police about Appleton before he killed her.

He was later found hanged. The Independent Police Complaints Commission criticised Greater Manchester Police for failings in the case.

Last week a woman who was tortured by her partner backed calls for the Scottish Government to change the law to help prevent domestic abuse.

Suzanne Small, from Glasgow, said it could have saved her from abuse at the hands of boyfriend Joseph Loughran.

Loughran, 51, tried to strangle Ms Small, burned her with cigarettes, cut her and tried to drown her in the bath. It later emerged he had attacked four ex-girlfriends.

Prosecutors said it was one of the worst cases of domestic abuse in Scottish history.

Ms Small, 47, said: “I wish I had known what he was capable of before he got the chance to strip me of everything I had.” The Home Office announced that the year-long pilot Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme (DVDS), which starts in the summer, will be based on a “right to ask”, enabling someone to ask police about their partner’s previous history of domestic violence or violent acts, and a “right to know”, where police can proactively disclose information in prescribed circumstances.

The trial will take place in Greater Manchester, Nottinghamshire, Wiltshire and Gwent.

Home Secretary Theresa May said it was aimed at “preventing tragic incidents” and the Association of Chief Police Officers added its support to the move.

May said: “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.

“This pilot scheme is designed to prevent tragic incidents from happening, such as that of Clare Wood, by ensuring that there is a clear framework in place with recognised and consistent processes for disclosing information.” Equalities minister, Lynne Featherstone, said the scheme was “one part of a methodology to try and deal with domestic violence which is unacceptable and epidemic in this country”.

But police already have common law powers to provide information about someone’s background if officers think there is a pressing need to do so to prevent a crime.

Since the death of his daughter, Brown, has campaigned for the change.

He said: “I can’t see that what I’ve proposed or what the Home Secretary has proposed can do any harm in this country at all.

“I have said time and time again that, had this been in place and had my daughter had any inkling of what this laddie was capable of, she would have been long gone. There’s no doubt about that at all.” But campaign groups are not sure the scheme will improve the situation.

A spokeswoman for Scottish Women’s Aid said: “We understand the desire to have information that would potentially avert such similar tragedies to the death of Clare Wood and many like her, and would be welcoming of a system which took historical abuse into account as a matter of course.

“However, the introduction of a Clare’s Law would not necessarily give the hoped-for protections.

“Many abusers have never been identified by the justice system, and as such, would have no record. Some may have a history of violence which is not flagged as domestic abuse. The proposed law would place a great deal of responsibility on to women to check the history of new partners, and they may be lulled into a false sense of security should he have a clean record.” She added: “If a woman chooses to stay with an abusive partner, we would be concerned that she would not be treated with the appropriate seriousness and sensitivity in the case of a domestic abuse incident.” The domestic abuse campaign group Refuge has said the scheme will do little to protect victims.

Sandra Horley, chief executive, said: “Why are we spending money on untested, untried, costly initiatives?

“The reality is that most of the perpetrators aren’t known to the police – and women may not even take up this scheme. The Government’s own assessment of this new scheme is that, at best, it will reduce domestic violence by half a per cent.” Writing in the Guardian, she said: “The disclosure scheme will give people the ‘right to ask’ about a partner’s previous convictions. I am not opposed to the underlying concept – that sharing information about violent perpetrators may help prevent further crime. But current legislation already allows this to happen. As it stands, the public has the right to ask about an individual’s previous convictions, and the police have the power to disclose that information where it could protect potential victims.” The child sex offender disclosure scheme, Sarah’s Law, which is the basis for the proposed Clare’s Law, is now in place across all police forces in England and Wales.

It was the result of a long-running campaign by Sara Payne, whose daughter Sarah was murdered by a known paedophile.

In Scotland this was followed by Keeping Children Safe, a police disclosure scheme which allows the public to apply for information about an individual who has access to a child.

It was revealed last week that dozens of sex offenders have been investigated under the scheme. A total of 258 applications for information were lodged since its launch on 31 March last year. Registered sex offenders were reported in 64 cases, but information was only given out in 26 cases.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We will follow with interest the outcome of the trial (Clare’s Law) planned in England and Wales to consider how they could apply in Scotland.” She added: “Our partners in Strathclyde Police’s Domestic Abuse Taskforce and the Glasgow Domestic Abuse Court’s advocacy service, ASSIST, already work to reduce the overall harm of domestic abuse by identifying those perpetrators who present the most serious risk of harm to victims and their families and, using all available methods at their disposal, targeting them for all aspects of their criminality, ultimately reducing the levels of domestic homicide.

“This can include investigating perpetrators previous relationships to assist in building a case and to ensure the victim is kept safe.”

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