In the UK this month, a Welsh MP called Liz Saville Roberts urged the British government to introduce a compulsory domestic violence register. She is certainly not the first to address this matter, but calls for action were renewed after Theodore Johnson, who already had two manslaughter convictions under his belt, was charged with the murder of his ex-girlfriend. This has generated much conversation amongst the British press who are now asking ‘is a law-enforced domestic violence register the next logical step in protecting vulnerable people from abuse?’
The context and ‘Clare’s Law’:
Since 2014 there has been legislation in place called ‘Clare’s Law’ across England, Wales and Scotland. Under ‘Clare’s Law’, anybody who suspects someone of abusive behavior can apply to the police for disclosure of their criminal record. This ‘right to ask’ measure is named after Clare Wood, who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend George Appleton in Manchester (UK) in 2009. Appleton had a record of perpetrating violence against women. Clare had already taken several precautions out against him, installing a panic button in her home after making an allegation that Appleton attempted to rape her. She reported him to the police on multiple occasions for sexual harassment as well as criminal damage, and just a week before her murder he was arrested for breaking into her property. The Greater Manchester Police came under great scrutiny for their handling of the situation, and after accusations of negligence were investigated, the IPCC concluded that Clare had been ‘let down by “individual and systemic” failures’ within the authorities.
There has been much praise for the efficacy of ‘Clare’s Law’; in 2015, over 1300 disclosures had been made, each one potentially preventing an abusive relationship. Yet there are now calls for the police to take a more proactive approach when identifying previous domestic violence offenders. This was prompted by the press surrounding serial killer Theodore Johnson, who was jailed for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Angela Best on the 5th of January this year. Johnson had already been convicted of manslaughter in 1981 and 1992; in both instances, the victims were his romantic partners.
The proposed legislation:
Those in support of the register are calling for the nationwide implementation of a domestic violence database akin to the current legal requirements for those convicted of sexual offenses. The US was the first country to launch a ‘national-level sex offender registration law’ in 1994, and since then at least 18 other countries have followed suit, including the UK. Convicted sex offenders are required to regularly appear in person to local law enforcement and provide updates regarding their address. These registers are available to the public online across all states in the US, but only certain people (head teachers, youth leaders & etc.) are notified when a sex offender moves into a new community.
Roberts is vying for a similar system, by which convicted domestic abusers would be obliged to check-in with the authorities regarding their whereabouts and inform them of any new relationships. This would enable the police to monitor the situation, and crucially, inform their new partners of the subject’s abusive past.
How would this benefit the public?
There has been plenty of press in support of the idea. In a 2016 interview with WREG news, a representative from the Family Safety Center stated that a ‘public and state-run domestic violence register’ is ‘absolutely needed’ as it would ‘would help to get tougher sentences for convicted abusers.’ In the UK, it would certainly have gone some way to prevent the repeat offenses which led to the murders of Clare Wood and Angela Best. Where ‘Clare’s Law’ relies on the initiative and suspicion of the potential victim, a register would ensure that they are pre-emptively informed of the abuser’s past by the authorities, regardless of whether they suspected a history of this behavior or not.
If a government-run domestic violence register was implemented in a similar manner to the current sex offenders register, then it would likely provide access to the name, date of birth, address and physical description of the abuser, as well as a recent photograph and a list of convictions. This would also allow victims of domestic abuse to keep tabs on their abusers if they are released after time served.
What are the potential problems?
At the moment, there are no state-run domestic violence registers in the US, but a private organization has launched the National Domestic Violence Database, where citizens can add offenders to the list and donate to the cause. While this is a good-intentioned effort with a noble mission statement, the information on this database is by no means exhaustive, nor is it verified by the authorities. According to recent statistics, only 25% of physical assaults perpetrated by an intimate partner are reported to the police. With this in mind, a state-run register would present similar issues to a private one; although the identities of previous convicts could be provided and approved by the police, it would by no means be a comprehensive list, as the majority of abusers are not reported, let alone charged.
In the UK, the proposition has been gathering speed for the last few months, with multiple MPs and London Mayor Sadiq Khan vocalizing their support but no sign of the government as a whole following suit. In the US there has been little said on the subject since 2011, when legislation to create a state-run register was considered in both Texas and New York, but eventually dismissed. It certainly does not look as though a register will be introduced in the imminent future in either country.
Across Q&A forums, Twitter threads and comment sections, the matter seems surprisingly controversial. Men’s rights groups state that women are notorious for making false allegations against former partners, while others show more reasonable concern about the register preventing the successful rehabilitation of reformed abusers into the community. There are undoubtedly some problematic elements which require attention, but in my opinion, it is a necessary preventative measure which would provide peace of mind for many victims and significantly lower the risk of encountering an abuser unknowingly. Statistically, those who perpetrate domestic violence are amongst those most likely to be repeat offenders, and a register is the logical way to tackle this.
 For further information, please visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-13506721
 For full quote, please visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-manchester-13506721
 For further information, please visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-30977759
 For further information, please visit https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/06/women-told-about-new-partners-abusive-past-police-powers-theodore-johnson
 Information sourced via https://www.justice.gov/criminal-ceos/citizens-guide-us-federal-law-sex-offender-registration
 For further statistics please visit http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/domestic-violence-statistics_n_5959776
 For further information please visit https://www.standard.co.uk/news/politics/london-mayor-sadiq-khan-backs-domestic-abuse-register-to-hold-abusers-details-a3693671.html
 Information sources via https://marriage.laws.com/domestic-violence/domestic-violence-statistics/repeat-offenders