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Get used to hearing about Clare’s Law.
It’s being rolled out in Saskatchewan and the groundwork is being laid in Newfoundland and Labrador, Alberta, Ontario and British Columbia.
Named for Clare Wood, a 36-year-old single mother who was strangled by her ex-boyfriend in England in 2009, the law’s purpose is to protect people who may be at risk from a violent partner.
The law was championed by Clare’s father, Michael Brown, and it allows the police to verbally disclose, either proactively or upon request, the criminal history of someone who has previously committed intimate partner violence. Clare’s killer had convictions for harassing a woman and breaking a restraining order. He had told Clare he’d been jailed for “motoring offences.”
In the months after she broke up with him, she had complained to the police multiple times about his threatening and violent behaviour. Her father argued that had she known about his past at the beginning of their relationship, she likely would never have gotten involved with him and would be alive today.
Put that simply, it makes sense.
But the reality of relationship violence is far more complex, and Clare’s Law requires more scrutiny.
Two academics, Sandra Walklate and Kate Fitz-Gibbon, from the U.K. and Australia, respectively, have studied Clare’s Law extensively and say there is no evidence to date that it “acts as a preventive strategy or an effective intervention.” (A paper they wrote refers to violence against women, but Clare’s Law can also be used by men at risk from a partner.)
“Much violence against women is hidden in nature and often unreported to the police (this is even more so for ethnic minority women and women with disabilities),” they write.
“The presumption that under Clare’s Law women can make informed decisions misunderstands the realities of living with the controlling effects of violence, overestimates the accuracy of police data on previous offending, and potentially makes women experiencing violence responsible for their partner’s behaviour should they choose to remain in the relationship, post-disclosure.”
Put that simply, it makes sense. But the reality of relationship violence is far more complex, and Clare’s Law requires more scrutiny.
In this province, Justice Minister Andrew Parsons has acknowledged that the legislation being introduced is bare bones at this point, and says there will be consultation to determine precisely how it would work.
And that’s wise, because the law raises many questions, such as whether it unjustly puts the onus on the victim to avoid the abuse, rather than on the abuser to stop being violent. And it raises questions about privacy and human rights: at what point does someone officially become your partner? Could the law be used vindictively? What if a person receives information and decides to continue in the relationship? Could custody of their children be jeopardized by their decision? Would they be taken less seriously, then, in the face of further complaints?
These are some of the nuanced questions that need to be answered, as well as practical ones: will the police be given more resources to gather information and disclose it to people at risk? What gets included in a person’s criminal history? Convictions only, or complaints, as well?
In the United Kingdom, where Clare’s Law has been in force for five years, police say there are often cases where they attempt to proactively disclose information to people at risk, but they refuse to hear it.
As one anti-domestic abuse advocate told the BBC, if a woman "feels she's not able to escape" it can be “easier not to know.”
Many advocates suggest that any additional resources should be deployed to help people leave abusive relationships.
In an excellent analysis piece on the University of Alberta’s law blog, professors Jennifer Koshan and Wanda Wiegers say that Clare’s Law — also known as domestic violence disclosure (DVD) law — could be window dressing hiding a larger problem.
“Governments can point to DVD laws as evidence that they are doing something while avoiding the need for increased funding for support services for survivors and the larger structural issues underlying domestic violence,” they write.
“This is not to say that DVD laws will not be a useful tool in some cases, but they must be accompanied by the kinds of resources and training that advocates and survivors have called for…”
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