Clare’s Law—Help or Hindrance?

On April 1st 2021, The Disclosure To Protect Against Domestic Violence Act, or “Clare’s Law”, came into effect in Alberta.  According to the Government of Alberta’s website, this law gives people who feel at risk of domestic violence a way to get information about their partners so they can make informed choices about their safety.

Alberta’s version of Clare’s Law is modelled after UK legislation implemented in 2014.  That law was named for Clare Wood, who was killed by her former partner in 2009.  She was unaware of his violent past, which included a six-year sentence for holding a woman captive at knifepoint for 12 hours.

Clare’s Law allows Albertans of any gender or sexual orientation to find out if their current or former partner (dating, common-law, or marriage relationships) has a history of domestic violence, stalking or harassment, breaches of no contact orders, or other relevant information.  The law also allows police to proactively provide people with information of those that they have identified as at risk of domestic violence.  The Person of Disclosure (the person whose information is being requested) will not be informed of the request, with stipulations that the at-risk party must meet in person with the police to receive the information verbally and sign a confidentiality agreement.

A long time ago I was a victim of intimate partner violence.  I would love to be optimistic and think that Clare’s Law will make a real difference in the lives of those who are at-risk of domestic violence.  However, I think this legislation is an easy, band-aid solution to a problem that is deeply rooted in systemic inequality and inadequate supports for the most vulnerable.

Critics of Clare’s Law cite many concerns, including the potential for victim-blaming.  If a person obtains disclosure about their partner’s violent past but does not leave—will they be blamed if they later sustain abuse?  Will police take the cases of those who (in theory) should have left and chose not to?  Will victims who didn’t leave be at risk for losing custody of their children?  I especially worry for Indigenous, racialized, or LGBTQ+ victims, where there is a history of maltreatment from our justice system.  Many at-risk individuals may distrust the police and be afraid to reach out.  Furthermore, due to the requirement to identify yourself and speak to the police in person, victims with outstanding criminal charges may not want to risk being arrested.

I also wonder about the many abusers who do not have a recorded criminal history.  Will Clare’s Law give a false sense of security to potential-victims? Will they ignore the red-flags and gut-feelings because their partner has come back “clean” on a disclosure request?  “Clare’s Law” is based on the assumption that people would make safe choices about relationships if they were better informed.  Yet the reality is that most victims of abuse are trapped—financially, culturally, out of fear of losing their children, or caught in a cycle of abuse due to trauma.

While Clare’s Law could be a helpful tool in ending domestic violence, it is not the stand-alone solution.  The focus needs to be maintained on how the police and other agencies respond to people who ask for protection, creating exit routes and ongoing support for those ready to leave abusive relationships, as well as addressing systemic inequalities that contribute to the cycle of abuse in the first place.  Clare’s Law is a good start, but it is certainly not the end.

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