In 2014, the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme, also known as Clare’s Law, was introduced to allow individuals to find out whether their partner had a previous history of domestic violence.
Named after Clare Wood who was murdered in 2009 by a boyfriend with a long history of domestic violence, the law allows partners or other concerned parties to request information on whether an intimate partner has a history of domestic violence. If another concerned party requests information about a friend or family member’s partner, then that information will only be revealed to the at-risk partner themselves.
And this is where problems often start to emerge. As a BBC report reveals, at-risk partners have a right to refuse the disclosure of this potentially life-saving information. The report shows that fewer than 44% of applications for information resulted in disclosure to the partner, largely because so many people who request the information are external to the relationship that is being scrutinised. It seems that many recipients refuse to hear the information because they do not want to deal with police, or are already aware of their partner’s history.
But if somebody does not want to hear information from the police because they are too scared, or are fully aware (perhaps through personal experience), that their partner has had a violent past, then surely it is already too late?
Clare’s Law is meant to be a preventative measure, but by the time many victims can identify themselves as 'at risk', they have already been sucked into a cycle of abuse or manipulation that may not yield to external intervention. And very few people at the start of a new and seemingly happy relationship would even think to check if their partner has a history of abusive behaviour.
There are many stereotypes we associate with an abusive relationship: physical injury and openly aggressive partners, for example. But these stereotypes can sometimes obscure the fact that there is not one single form that an abusive relationship can take. In a Telegraph article on gaslighting, a victim describes her experiences of abuse, and notes that while she suffered through her husband’s controlling and temperamental behaviour, "to others he was charming and normal".
And if your partner is manipulating you into believing you deserve the abuse you are receiving, or that that abuse is only taking place inside your own head, and others around you believe your partner is wonderful, then this not only diminishes the seriousness of what is happening to you, but calls into question its very reality.
While Clare’s Law is a well-meaning initiative, the process of enacting it is undoubtedly clunky, and lacking in the necessary subtlety to allow victims or potential victims to truly make use of it. If somebody is doubting the reality of their abuse, they are very unlikely to want to involve the police, especially when police can then go on to arrest the abusive partner from information that the victim may reveal. Many victims of abuse are highly defensive of their abusive partner, so going to a police station to express concerns about their behaviour may be too much for victims to process.
Unfortunately, Clare’s Law is symptomatic of the way we generally respond to relationships that seem abusive: it is too little too late. Our general responses to abuse are always after the facts are established as the justice system deals with abuse victims, and preventative measures are not used as they should be. Clare’s Law can only really ever be of use to those who already feel threatened, and feeling threatened by a partner is not the same as wanting or being able to leave them, or wanting to see them go to prison.
The only real way that we can help victims of domestic abuse is to make it easier for people to identify the early signs. This can come with better formal relationships education, and with a general shift in the way we talk about abuse.
The stereotype of the outwardly angry (perhaps drunken), good-for-nothing male abuser, and the cowering, battered and bruised female victim hides so much of what abusive relationships actually contain. The seemingly well-adjusted family man can also be a killer, as in the case of Lance Hart. The educated young woman can also be a violent and manipulative girlfriend, as was Jordan Worth.
When we refuse to accept that certain people, because of how they come across generally, are capable of being abusive partners, we do a terrible disservice to victims of abuse, delegitimising their suffering further. We need to be open minded about what abuse can look like because it is never really the case that abusive relationships start off in an overtly abusive way.
A violent or controlling partner has to have some means of leveraging control over their significant other. This may be exerted through making the other partner fearful, but it often comes through the kindness and love which they convince their victim that they alone can offer.
If someone hits you, it is a terrible thing, but when the person who hits you has made themselves out to be the only person who loves you in the world, then you stand to lose everything by walking away.
So we need a shift in the way we think about abuse. Getting the police involved in your distressing situation may seem like a good idea to an outside observer, but to a victim of abuse, it means identifying their abuser as guilty of a crime. And that identification may often only come years after the abuse has taken place.
Instead, people need to understand what both healthy and unhealthy relationships look like, and they need to be able to glean right from the earliest moments when they are not being respected in their relationships. Only then will Clare’s Law truly be a law that supplements and strengthens the fight against domestic abuse.