Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

Women must look after themselves, not rely on law

Clare Wood met George Appleton on Facebook. After their relationship ended, he turned up at her house, smashed the front door, and threatened her with an iron.

Clare called the police, but four months later, Appleton strangled her, set her body on fire and then hanged himself.

Clare had no idea that her former boyfriend had a history of violence towards women. He regularly sought out partners on the internet, using fake names, threatening several and kidnapped one at knifepoint.

This time, it ended in death. A shocking story - and the police must take the blame for not treating Clare's complaints about her ex-partner seriously.

They took three months to prepare to charge him with domestic violence, during which time he broke bail conditions and was free to terrorise his victim.

Clare's father has campaigned for women to be able to find out if their partners have a history of violence.

At his daughter's inquest, the coroner agreed that such a change in the law would help women, and said the police had failed the victim by taking so long to act.

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, seems inclined to agree. She's ordered a 12-week consultation, which started last week, to consider a new law enabling women to ask the police if their partners have a history of domestic violence.

At present, the police can disclose previous convictions only if there is a pressing need to do so, or if it will prevent a crime. If 'Clare's Law', as it is dubbed, enters the statute book, then the police could also proactively notify women if their partners have a history of violence.

These proposals are modelled on Sarah's Law. Following the murder of schoolgirl Sarah Payne, parents now have the legal right to check whether anyone with regular access to their children has been convicted of sex offences.

Sarah's Law was a popular piece of legislation, backed by a national newspaper campaign and many public figures. Parents say they are grateful, but it hasn't stopped child abuse or paedophiles trying to gain access to the young. It may act as a deterrent, but it also drives abusers underground; they will just become more devious.

The death of Clare Wood was preventable, but a new law in her name will not prevent domestic violence. In the past, women met partners through friends, or social situations where they were surrounded by people they knew, or in places where they felt safe.

Now, relationships start online, where fake personas are the norm and a violent past is erased with the click of a mouse.

At what point will women go to the police and ask about new partners? Domestic violence creeps up on you: women are groomed to accept it, just as kids are groomed by paedophiles. So violence might already be a regular occurrence before a woman goes to the police.

Having discovered her partner has a violent past, will she leave him? Again, this is not a foregone conclusion.

And I'm worried about what happens to the information the police hand over to potential victims. What if the woman concerned decides to disclose it to relatives, neighbours or friends - even though the information is confidential?

Surveys indicate that 91% of us think that disclosing this information is a good idea, but, then, what if the person concerned has reformed?

Does it not imply that a violent person is genetically programmed to repeat their actions over and over again? I find that rather chilling.

Even convicted criminals have rights. I am not at all sure that dishing out information about someone's past behaviour will result in less domestic abuse.

Women need to be far more careful about forming new relationships - particularly online.

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