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‘Women at risk’ as police in England and Wales miss Clare’s Law deadlines

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Tero Vesalainen/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Tero Vesalainen/Alamy

Police took over a month to disclose information about the criminal histories of suspected abusers in almost a quarter of applications for background checks approved last year, Observer analysis has found.

Clare’s Law, introduced in 2014, gives people the “right to ask” their force about any previous domestic violence or offences that mean their partners could pose a risk to them.

Home Office guidance states that police will aim to complete the inquiries within 35 days.

However, data released under Freedom of Information laws shows that response times to 375 out of 1,609 “right to ask” requests (23%) approved by police in England and Wales in 2020 fell below this target.

Out of the 14 forces able to provide full statistics for last year, Bedfordshire proportionally failed to meet the guidance most often, as information relating to 20 of the 33 approved Right to Ask requests (61%) took more than 35 days to disclose.

It was followed by Leicestershire police, which had a rate of 51%, with 68 out of 134 approved applicants waiting over 35 days to find out whether or not the suspected abuser had a violent offending history.

The Met, Derbyshire and Staffordshire police, by contrast, revealed material within the advised timeframe for every request they disclosed in 2020.

Campaigners have reacted with alarm to the figures as timely background checks on a partner suspected of previous abuse may have proved vital for those confined to their homes during lockdowns.

Clare Wood, for whom the &#x002018;right to ask&#x002019; law is named, was murdered by a former boyfriend in 2009.
Clare Wood, for whom the ‘right to ask’ law is named, was murdered by a former boyfriend in 2009. Photograph: Greater Manchester Police/PA

The delays coincided with a surge in requests for information about partners’ potential violent pasts, which more than doubled from 3,479 in 2018 to 8,438 last year, according to responses from 26 out of the 43 forces in England and Wales.

“The data highlights unacceptable delays in police disclosure of information about a partner’s history of domestic abuse or violent acts,” said Sophie Francis-Cansfield, senior campaigns and policy officer at Women’s Aid. “We support placing the statutory guidance underpinning Clare’s Law on a statutory footing in the Domestic Abuse Act. This means that the police will have to adhere to the guidance and this should improve consistency throughout the forces, including the length of time it takes to respond.”

Clare’s Law, or the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme, is named after Clare Wood, 36, who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend at her home in Salford in 2009. She had been unaware of his history of violence against women.

As well as members of the public being able to make requests under the initiative, police can also proactively warn people who may be at risk through the “right to know” element. But critics say a false sense of security can be created when people worried about their partner’s behaviour are told they have no past convictions, as many domestic violence cases go unreported.

Questions have also been raised over the reasons behind the huge disparity in how forces release the information.

Essex police, which did not respond to a request for comment, disclosed 36 – only 7% – of the 529 “right to ask” applications it received last year.

Over the same period, Norfolk constabulary disclosed 61% of the total requests it received.

Jennifer Cirone,, the designated adults safeguarding lead at the women’s charity Solace, was involved in the pilot of the scheme. “Some areas may employ a very conservative approach, relying only on related convictions to determine disclosure,” she said.

“Other police areas may have a different approach that recognises that many people who present a risk may have been involved in concerning behaviour that has not resulted in charge or conviction.”

Related: The UK’s femicide epidemic: who’s killing our daughters?

“Timely information is really important for people in deciding what action they want to take. Delay can result in not only escalation of risk but making it more difficult for people to end an unsafe relationship if that is what they want to do.”

Obtaining details from other police services, dealing with applicants who have moved addresses and safely releasing information requested by third parties – such as concerned parents and neighbours – are among the factors that can extend disclosure times.

A Bedfordshire police spokesperson said that the pandemic had affected the training of new staff managing the applications and had made it harder to meet people at risk.

The force is optimistic that it will now be able to meet the Home Office timetable for the more than 20 applications a month it receives.

A spokesperson for Leicestershire police said the rise in the number of applications last year, along with lockdown restrictions, contributed to the delays, adding that their force will continue to do all it can to support victims of domestic abuse.

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