Clare WoodThe news that ‘Clare’s Law’, by which according to the BBC ‘enables women to check the police record of a new boyfriend’ will be expanded to cover the whole of England and Wales fills me with unease. On the surface it seems to offer a simple tool in the fight against what is a truly horrendous problem – but I find myself wondering whether the process and the implications of this law have been properly thought through.

I look forward very much to seeing the results of the pilot schemes that have been operating since September 2012 – and in particular how the ‘success’ of the scheme is being measured. Did they measure how many reports were requested? Did they ask how many relationships were either not entered into or ended by the woman who discovered information? Did they attempt to measure an impact on domestic violence or other related offences? If so, it would be very interesting to know how – and I hope they make the information public.

The published evidence [pdf] only covers the new ‘Domestic Violence Protection Orders’, used as a civil law response to incidents of domestic violence, not as ‘check-ups’ of potential new boyfriends. I’ve tried to find evidence of the actual pilots of Clare’s Law, but so far all the Home Office seems to have posted is a press release.

Practical questions – and potential misuses

One question that immediately entered my mind when I heard about this scheme is how it actually works in practice. At what stage would a woman be able to ask for this information – and what if any evidence would she have to provide in order to get the information. Would it be when she had had a single ‘date’? Or even before that? How could or can you prove that you have a relationship with someone? If you need proof, then that might make things very difficult – sneaking around to gather information about your ‘boyfriend’ might even put you in more danger. If you don’t need proof, then that leaves the system ripe for abuse – for example by unscrupulous journalists trying to dig up dirt on someone they’re planning a story about.

That brings up one fairly fundamental point: do we consider these kinds of records as in any sense private or confidential. Do we want them to be ‘public property’ – because if we do, we need to be very clear about that, because there are implications, some of which are very serious. It makes the idea of rehabilitation much harder, let alone redemption. It has an impact on the potential fairness of trials – there’s a reason that previous convictions are not usually disclosed in a trial until after guilt or innocence is determined.

The risks of this kind of a system

One scenario keeps running through my mind. Imagine a woman has got a new boyfriend, and she’s not quite sure about him. Something makes her nervous and unsure – so she takes advantage of Clare’s Law and checks out his criminal record. When it comes back ‘clean’, she’s reassured and puts her worries to one side, and enters the relationship. The trouble is, the boyfriend is violent, and the woman finds herself becoming a victim of domestic violence. Rather than using other methods, or trusting to her instincts, she trusts the ‘clean’ criminal record – and suffers directly as a result.

Would this be an unusual scenario? Hardly, because by most accounts the vast majority of domestic violence and spousal abuse remains unreported. It seems highly likely that the majority of violent men don’t have criminal records. Clare’s Law, even if it’s used by women, is unlikely to really work – and may indeed, if this kind of scenario is played out, end up putting women into more danger.

There’s another side to this – it may even be that a side effect of Clare’s Law is to perpetuate another damaging myth: that the only violent men are those we characterise as ‘criminal’. That ‘normal’, ‘respectable’ men aren’t capable or likely to commit violence. That’s simply not true – some of the most outwardly respectable men, without apparent blemishes on their character, let alone criminal records, commit hideous acts of violence to their partners.

Normalisation of checks – and the undermining of privacy

What’s more, this system adds to a building momentum against privacy – and in favour of checking everything and assuming that those checks will solve the problems. It’s that kind of approach that underpins the support for large-scale surveillance, and the building of the database state – even without proof that it actually helps, and indeed the distinct possibility that it will do exactly the opposite. If the solution to any problem is to go and check the records, the implication is that we need more records, more information – and hence more surveillance and less privacy. If we imply that before embarking on any relationship, anyone should do a complete background check on the person that they’re considering a relationship with, we make such background checks the norm. That may be OK – but it would be a big step to make, a step towards a society which relies on records and tests more than on humanity.

‘Simple solutions’ – and bureaucratic idealism

This leads on to another closely connected issue – and a pattern that this kind of ‘solution’ seems to fit into. We seem to look for ‘simple’ and surface level solutions to problems that are complex, deep-rooted and societal. The problem of domestic violence is a huge one, and one that we need to address very seriously at every level – and not just look for good headlines in the Daily Mail. It is not a problem easily amenable to simple solutions. As tweeter Guy Herbert put it, it ‘ignores the whole psychology of abusive relationships in favour of bureaucratic idealism’. It may work in theory – but are the women in this kind of position likely to avail themselves of this kind of a service? Even if they do, how will they react to the information that’s provided?

I look forward to seeing the evaluation of the pilot schemes – because if this really does work, if it really is a useful tool, then it should be welcomed – and some people I deeply respect have told me that they know a number of people who would have been helped very directly by the existence of the law.

If, on the other hand, it is merely a distraction to get good headlines and distract from the real, crucial underlying issues, then the reaction should be very different. If at the same time as bringing in a law we are reducing funding for the crucial services to help victims of this kind of abuse and violence, then we should be shouting this to the rooftops. We need more information, more education – particularly of boys, and particularly about relationships – and more enforcement of existing laws.

Right now, I’m not quite sure which way this goes – but at first glance this looks more like headline-grabbing than something that can really help.

This post originally appeared on Paul Bernal’s blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks