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