Law will help people to protect themselves
The Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme has launched in Northern Ireland, and not a day too soon. While it won't be a magic wand to wipe out domestic violence, it will do one key thing - give people information about serial perpetrators.
Over the last 40 years, Women's Aid has supported woman after woman whose lives have been destroyed by the same abusive men. Abusers who move from one woman to another with impunity - they are well known to police, social services and support services like us, yet they have never been convicted of a crime. Once their current victim gathers the strength to leave the relationship, they simply move on in search of the next victim.
This scheme, commonly known as Clare's Law, will allow people to ask police if their partner has a history of domestic violence. Not just whether they have a criminal conviction, but also whether the PSNI has any intelligence about them being a domestic violence perpetrator in the past.
The value of such a disclosure cannot be underestimated. Domestic violence is all about power and control, and one way perpetrators control their victims is to convince them that the abuse is all in their head. For victims, having official confirmation from the PSNI that their partner has a history of domestic abuse may give them the proof they need to know they're being abused and to leave.
When the Department of Justice consulted on the scheme in 2016, I was tasked with asking women in our services what they thought about the idea. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Women told us that a disclosure may be the "wake-up call" that victims need to leave.
One woman told me: "My family had concerns but I was in so deep by that stage I wouldn't listen to them. Maybe if the police showed me evidence that he'd done this before it would have been different."
The scheme doesn't come without risks though. It will require the PSNI to work with experts like Women's Aid, Men's Advisory Project and the 24 Hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline to ensure that support is in place for victims who ask for a disclosure. It's not enough to know about your partner's history, you also have to know how to leave safely. Two women per week are killed by a partner or former partner in the UK, and the most dangerous time is when they try to leave.
And not all abusers will have a history of violence - every abuser has to start somewhere. So it is crucial that anyone contacting police are signposted to support services as soon as they ask for a disclosure.
Our bottom line is this - whether or not you get a positive disclosure, trust your gut. If you think something isn't right, it probably isn't. And if that's the case, you have nothing to lose by picking up the phone and calling the free, confidential helpline on 0808 802 1414 to talk through your concerns. What you have to gain is much more significant - a life free from abuse, which is something we all deserve.
Louise Kennedy is Regional Policy and Information Co-ordinator with Women's Aid Federation NI