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Violent offenders registers sound good, but are a costly, unproven distraction

One of the most dangerous times in an abusive relationship is when it ends – which was when Clare Wood was murdered by her ex-partner. Paul Millar/AAP

Violent offenders registers sound good, but are a costly, unproven distraction

One of the most dangerous times in an abusive relationship is when it ends – which was when Clare Wood was murdered by her ex-partner. Paul Millar/AAP

The New South Wales government looks set to pilot Australia’s first register of domestic violence offenders, modelled on a UK scheme known as “Clare’s Law”.

It’s an idea winning interest in other states, with the Victorian Police calling for it to be considered in its submission to the Royal Commission into Family Violence. Last month, the Queensland opposition leader said the Clare’s Law model “would save the lives of women and children in Queensland”.

It sounds like a good idea; why shouldn’t people have a right to ask and know about their partner’s history of domestic violence?

But a closer look at the NSW proposal for a Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme, and what little we know about how Clare’s Law has worked in the UK, soon reveals why Rosie Batty and others have raised concerns about a violent offenders register.

‘Clare’s Law’ does not address critical service gaps

The NSW scheme would allow a concerned person to ask if their current partner has any recorded history of domestic violence (which is known as the “Right to Ask”).

It would also allow a relevant authority, such as the police, to inform a person about a current partner’s previous history of domestic violence if they think that person is at risk (the “Right to Know”).

It is modelled on a UK scheme that was introduced after the murder of Clare Wood by her former partner, George Appleton, in February 2009. It is worth looking at this case closely, as it raises questions about whether we think a disclosure scheme would make a difference.

In the lead up to her death, Clare had contacted the police a number of times to report harassment, threats to kill, sexual assault and property damage. The police did not adequately respond to what Clare was telling them; they did not follow their own procedures; they failed to put Clare’s reports together to build up a picture of increasing risk; and did not look at Appleton’s criminal history.

The gap, then, does not appear to be that Clare did not know about Appleton’s previous convictions, but rather that the police did not act on Clare’s own disclosures about violence.

Following Clare’s death, there were calls for a Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme (DVDS). Yet such a scheme would have done nothing to address the gaps in the service response by the police.

As a number of domestic violence advocacy groups in the UK noted in their submissions to the then proposed UK scheme, what was needed at the outset was improvement in the current response of the police and the legal system.

Is the UK scheme helping victims? We don’t know

We know very little about how the UK operates and whether it is effective. The UK scheme was piloted in four locations in 2012 before being rolled out across England and Wales.

It has both the “right to ask” and “right to know” components and aims to:

  • reduce domestic violence;
  • reduce the health and criminal justice related costs of domestic violence;
  • and enhance multi-agency collaboration to better support victims of domestic violence.

But the evaluation of the pilot was very limited. It looked at process, rather than outcomes.

The evaluation “was not designed to consider any impact the scheme may have had on domestic abuse victims” – though one might suggest that was the key question that should have been asked, and answered.

At the very least, it would seem advisable to wait until a more thorough evaluation is conducted in the UK before such a scheme is initiated in Australia. That’s particularly true given the estimated cost of such a scheme.

Where will the extra funding come from?

The average cost reported in one of the UK pilot areas was £740 per application.

In the UK, it was estimated that their DVDS, including both a right to know and a right to ask, would generate around 4,302 applications each year (roughly a third of which would result in a disclosure), at a cost of £3.18 million.

That estimate only considered the direct costs of the scheme. It did not include any additional funds that that might be needed for services to support potential victims following a disclosure.

It was further estimated that in order to have an impact on the overall average costs of domestic violence to society (estimated at £7850 per victim), then disclosures would have to prevent “domestic violence … in around one third of cases” in which a disclosure is made.

Yet as the report itself notes, “there is no evidence to suggest how effective those disclosures would be in reducing domestic abuse”.

Gaping holes in what is recorded and disclosed

Beyond the costs, there are gaps and assumptions underlying Domestic Violence Disclosure Schemes that raise questions about their effectiveness in addressing domestic violence.

Let’s say you have concerns and want to check if your partner has a history of domestic violence. The scheme is designed to disclose whether a person has a recorded history of perpetrating domestic violence; that is, a criminal conviction, or a current or previous protection order.

This leaves a lot of people who have a history of violence “off the list”. Australia’s National Research Organisation on Women’s Safety statistics show that 58% of women who had experienced violence from a former partner “had never contacted the police”. Even when women do make a report to the police, there is a high rate of attrition across the legal system.

So what happens if a woman is told that there is nothing to disclose?

The UK DVDS and the one proposed for NSW both emphasise that even where there is nothing to disclose, the woman will be told that this doesn’t necessarily mean that her partner has not perpetrated violence in the past.

What do we really think she will take from that “non-disclosure”?

As one key UK advocacy group, Refuge, warned in their submission about the then proposed UK scheme, the provision of such non-information may “create a false sense of security in some women”, it may make them feel “safe”, and it may “encourage them to think that the violence they are suffering is ‘imagined’ or ‘exaggerated’”.

‘Choice’ requires support

One of the stated aims of the proposed DVDS in NSW is to allow potential victim’s to make an “informed choice” about whether to continue a relationship with a person who has perpetrated domestic violence in the past.

Informed choice is a difficult concept, especially in the context of domestic violence.

Many factors limit “choice”, such as the availability of support services, access to financial resources, and whether there are children from the relationship.

The assumption that, once provided with information, women will chose to end a potentially violent relationship also ignores the fact that homicide statistics tell us that leaving is one of the most dangerous times for women.

And while domestic violence disclosure schemes are supposed to be designed to prevent a violent person from moving on to a new partner and perpetrating violence again, there is sadly no extra action or enforcement against perpetrators.

Instead, once again, the onus is put on victims to do something – leave – rather than for all components of the service and legal system being focused on tackling repeat domestic violence offenders.

What’s still missing: extra help and funding

Across Australia, we know that crucial legal help, housing, counselling, health and financial assistance for people trying to escape violence are chronically under-funded, or have even had their funding cut.

Just last weekend, the lack of availability of crisis refuge accommodation for women fleeing domestic violence in NSW was highlighted in the media.

Rather than a implementing a new scheme, the benefits of which are unknown, what we need most is prevention, intervention and support to encourage women to make reports to the police, and to ensure effective responses when they do so.

That’s what Clare Wood needed, but didn’t get, when she tried to exercise her choice to leave her violent former partner.


Read more of The Conversation’s ongoing Domestic Violence coverage.

Anyone at risk of family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault can seek help 24 hours a day, seven days a week, either online or by calling 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). Information is also available in 28 languages other than English.