Clare's Law: should abuse history be revealed to new partners?

Alyssa McDonald
July 21, 2011 - 5:09PM


Clare Wood ... strangled by a man with a history of violence who she met through Facebook.


A senior NSW policeman says Australia would be foolish to dismiss a move for a “Clare's Law” to let women find out if their partners have a history of domestic violence.

The UK government is considering introducing the legislation, in part as a reaction to the growth of online dating.

The NSW Police Force's spokesman on Domestic and Family Violence, Assistant Commissioner Mark Murdoch, said it would be interesting to see the outcome of the British debate over the law.

“We'd be foolish to dismiss it,” he said. “The internet is part of our lives and we potentially can't do without it. So we need to be able to live with it, be able to manage it.”

He believes the background of the proposal for Clare's Law is a significant issue "and it will probably become more significant as people use the internet more and more”.

He pointed out that a broader strategy of internet safety education was also needed, and that a balance needs to be struck between protecting potential victims and safeguarding individuals' records.

“Clare's Law” is named in reference to Clare Wood, who was killed in February 2009 by a man she met through Facebook.

George Appleton strangled the 36-year-old from Salford, Greater Manchester, before setting her body on fire and hanging himself.

It was later revealed that police were aware of Appleton's violent history, which included the knifepoint kidnapping of a former girlfriend.

He was known to look for women through social networking sites.

As online dating has grown, increasing numbers of people are meeting new partners over the internet about whom they have little or no background information.

In New South Wales, like the UK, reports of domestic violence have also risen: the Bureau of Crime Statistics found a 3.3 per cent increase in Sydney, and a 1.2 per cent increase statewide, in the 24 months to March 2011.

Under the Clare's Law proposal, women and men would be able to raise concerns about a partner with the police. More controversially, it has also been suggested that police could alert someone to a partner's history of violence, even if an approach for information had not been made.

The British proposal has backing from the Association of Chief Police Officers, from government figures and from Clare Wood's father, Michael Brown, who told the UK's Mail on Sunday: “My daughter wasn't stupid. If she had known about that man's past she would have taken herself out of there in a heartbeat.”

However, Janet Loughman, Principal Solicitor of Women's Legal Services NSW said: “A criminal record check would not expose the significant amount of domestic violence that goes unreported or without convictions.

"The absence of a record may give women a false sense of security.

"Another concern would be that disclosure of past violence may not affect a woman's decision about entering a relationship, depending on the point in the relationship at which the check is made.

"The cyclical nature of domestic violence can mean that women stay with men they know to be violent, believing that it won't happen again.”

Clare's Law is equally problematic for civil liberties campaigners.

“Sometimes these laws do have the consequence of vigilante behaviour,” said David Burnie of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties.

Judging people on past convictions also undermines the concept of rehabilitation, he said.

“How do you determine if something is a history of violence or a one-off event? It does really raise these questions about people wanting to put their past behind them not being able to do so.”

There are also practical issues: to obtain somebody's criminal record normally requires a complete name and date of birth. Not everybody has access to these in the first stages of a relationship, whether or not their partner might have a motive for concealing them.

There are also potential problems for the police, Murdoch said.

“Without being unkind to anyone, there would be people who change their partners like they change their underwear,” he said.

Trying to keep track of every new relationship “would just become ridiculous.”

The idea behind Clare's Law follows legislation known in the UK as Sarah's Law, and as Megan's Law in the US. Both laws allow the public to access information about the whereabouts of convicted paedophiles.

The potential for similar legislation in Australia been discussed for over a decade, but fears that such a system would encourage the kind of vigilante behaviour which has been seen in the UK and US have persisted.