Is Clare's Law just?


Though it might now be mistaken for a political class cage fight, the News of the World scandal is really about privacy. Interesting, then, to see another public debate swinging wholly against the right to privacy. This Monday, a campaign was launched for Clare’s Law, a proposal that would force the police to reveal, upon request, an individual’s history of violence to his or her partner.

The law is so-named in memory of Clare Woods, who was murdered in 2009 by a man with previous domestic abuse complaints. The proposal enjoys the support of Victims Commissioner Louise Casey, former Home Office Minister Hazel Blears, and the victim’s father. Reportedly, Home Secretary Theresa May is also reviewing the proposal (though her plate is rather full at the moment).

According to Casey, the law will help women avoid abusive relationships. She says, ''This seems common sense to me. Our priority should not be protecting a perpetrator's privacy at the expense of costing a woman's life.”

Casey presents Clare’s Law as a trade-off between an offender’s privacy and a woman’s life. If that were really the choice, I doubt many of us would object. What Casey means, though, is that Clare’s Law barters an offender’s privacy for the possibility of a decreased risk of harm. Domestic abuse is horrible, but this is not the way to solve it.

The issue is risk. An individual has the right to defend herself against direct harm. She has the right to try to avoid risk. She does not have the right to violate another’s privacy to avoid risk, however. Privacy, like all other individual liberties, should be jealously guarded, and is only justifiably breached to protect against direct harm. Probability is insufficient.

To think otherwise denies a tenet of our justice system, that people are innocent until proven guilty. With Clare’s Law, Casey is juxtaposing a rap sheet and crime stats and assuming recidivism. This is unacceptable.

Justifying a rights violation on the basis of likelihood is an argument of infinite regress: mightn’t every woman with whom an offender comes into contact be at risk? Everyone, for that matter? The only acceptable bright-line is actual harm.

The proposal subverts the purposes of punishment. Submitting an ex-felon to perpetual privacy violations does nothing to further the aims of incarceration, deterrence, rehabilitation, or retribution (well, perhaps some ignoble part of the latter). It is likely to alienate offenders who are trying to move on with their lives. Indeed, Clare’s Law actively undermines rehabilitation. Treating offenders as statistical data points denies the possibility of reform.

Violence against women is unacceptable. So are witch hunts and privacy violations. We restrict who can access police files because we believe privacy is important, and correlation is not enough to encroach upon this right.