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Thousands of women at risk as police reject over 10,000 background checks on potential abusers

Clare’s Law was rolled out in 2014 and enables people to ask police forces about an individual’s history of domestic abuse or violent offences (PA)
Clare’s Law was rolled out in 2014 and enables people to ask police forces about an individual’s history of domestic abuse or violent offences (PA)

Thousands of vulnerable women are being left at serious risk of harm because police forces are failing to hand over potentially lifesaving information on violent criminals, The Independent can reveal.

In the latest shameful example of England’s police forces failing to protect women, official data shows that more than half of 20,226 requests for background checks on potential domestic abusers were rejected during a six-month period.

Campaigners say that victims face a “postcode lottery” in their search for answers, with one expert warning that the sheer scale of rejections is putting women’s lives at risk.

Senior Tory MP Robert Buckland has called for an urgent independent review of the disclosure scheme, known as Clare’s Law. It is named after 36-year-old Clare Wood, who was murdered in 2009 by her ex-boyfriend George Appleton. Appleton had a history of violence that Wood was unaware of.

As a picture emerges of an inadequate system that has left thousands of women unable to obtain information about their partners, The Independent can report that:

  • Fifty-six per cent of criminal background requests made under Clare’s Law between October 2021 and March 2022 were denied, according to data from the National Police Chiefs’ Council

  • Some forces are making women wait months instead of days to learn whether their partner has a history of committing violence against women

  • The mother of a woman killed by an abusive ex-boyfriend has criticised police for failing her daughter

Laura Mortimer and her daughter Ella Dalby were stabbed 42 times at their home in Gloucester in May 2018 by Mortimer’s partner (Hilary Stinchcombe)
Laura Mortimer and her daughter Ella Dalby were stabbed 42 times at their home in Gloucester in May 2018 by Mortimer’s partner (Hilary Stinchcombe)

Hilary Stinchcombe told The Independent that a Clare’s Law disclosure could have saved the lives of her daughter Laura Mortimer, 31, and her 11-year-old granddaughter Ella Dalby.

The pair were stabbed 42 times at their home in Gloucester in May 2018 by Mortimer’s partner (and Ella’s stepfather) Christopher Boon, who had, unbeknown to the family, been given a suspended sentence months before they met for assaulting his previous partner and her mother in front of two children.

Ms Stinchcombe said the family had requested information from police about Boon under Clare’s Law, but the force had denied their application, incorrectly claiming that the request must come directly from the victim.

“It’s disgusting the police misunderstood the rules and denied us this information,” she said. “If I’d known he had previous convictions, there is no way I would have let him near [Laura’s] children, and I wouldn’t have let him in the house.”

A review into the deaths found that police had failed to take action when Boon attacked Mortimer in 2014, even though he was a known offender. Mortimer initially told officers she had been assaulted by Boon but that she “did not wish to support police action”.

Ms Stinchcombe claims that, after the attack, her other daughter went to a police station to request a Clare’s Law disclosure but was turned away. “She was convinced he had previous convictions – somebody had said to her – but none of us knew until the court date,” her mother said.

Gloucester Police pointed out that a combined domestic homicide review and a serious case review stated Ms Mortimer was told about her husband’s history of domestic abuse by a social worker but was unconcerned by it.

Just months before meeting Mortimer, Boon had been given a suspended sentence for assaulting his previous partner and her mother (PA)
Just months before meeting Mortimer, Boon had been given a suspended sentence for assaulting his previous partner and her mother (PA)

Clare’s Law, which is divided into two halves, gives victims and their loved ones the right to ask police about an abuser’s criminal background. The second part gives public bodies the right to request information on individuals they feel pose a risk to women.

A spokesperson for the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said Clare’s Law applications are rejected because there is no information to reveal about a suspected perpetrator.

But Sir Robert urged ministers to agree the terms of a review with the NPCC to ensure that legitimate requests are not being dismissed.

One police force, Wiltshire Police, is reviewing thousands of applications in relation to the failure to disclose information that could have protected people at risk of domestic violence. The review was triggered after concerns were raised about a member of staff. An Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) spokesperson said an independent review is ongoing.

Sir Robert told The Independent: “I am less than trusting in the system, and want reassurance that those applications have not just been dismissed in a summary way – that they have been considered seriously, even if no disclosure is made.

“I think there should be a review to make sure the processes are being adhered to in a proper way, bearing in mind what happened in Wiltshire. Anything that undermines confidence in the system is going to be bad for people who are doing their best to prevent being the victims of abuse.”

He added: “The whole point of this system was to increase public confidence, and if it’s going the other way, then that is clearly against the objective of the system.”

Labour’s shadow minister for domestic violence said that missed opportunities have already cost too many lives. Alex Davies-Jones said it was very concerning that half of the applications made under the scheme had been rejected, and urged the National Police Chiefs’ Council to work with police forces to make sure a “consistent and rigorous approach is being applied in these cases”.

She said the scheme must “ensure that every opportunity for early protection and prevention is taken when it comes to domestic violence and abuse”, adding: “Missed opportunities cost lives, and far too many have already been lost.”

Domestic abuse commissioner Nicole Jacobs said the law could provide potentially lifesaving information, but that refusing applications means that “opportunities are being missed” to protect victims.

The last photograph of Mortimer and her mother Hilary Stinchcombe, taken around a month before the 31-year-old was killed by Boon (Hilary Stinchcombe)
The last photograph of Mortimer and her mother Hilary Stinchcombe, taken around a month before the 31-year-old was killed by Boon (Hilary Stinchcombe)

Ellie Butt, of Refuge, a leading domestic abuse charity partnered with The Independent, said there are many holes in the scheme and warned that Clare’s Law can foster a “false sense of security, when vital information is withheld or overlooked”.

Rachel Horman-Brown, a domestic abuse solicitor, said failures to disclose information under Clare’s Law can put women’s lives at risk. Some women she supports are given disclosures under Clare’s Law, but a lot see their applications rejected, she said.

“Sometimes they are told, ‘You have separated from him; you don’t need to know,’ but separations in the context of domestic abuse are often not linear. Victims will often go back to their perpetrators,” she added.

“This is because the perpetrators are so manipulative, and victims feel controlled and scared. A lot of victims are a lot less likely to go back if they know of the history of abuse. That excuse of refusing information by the police doesn’t stack up.”

Dr Charlotte Barlow, who specialises in Clare’s Law and domestic abuse, said Clare’s Law is a “postcode lottery”, with some areas investing far more money in the scheme than others.

The academic said domestic abuse victims she encounters sometimes wait months to be given a disclosure about a partner – adding that one woman was forced to wait five months despite ringing the police multiple times.

Recommended wait times for disclosure are 28 days, but Dr Barlow warned that this is too long.

Louisa Rolfe, assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and domestic abuse lead for the NPCC, said: “Police aim to consult relevant safeguarding agencies before disclosing, and, where a victim discloses potential abuse during the process but no records are held, police look to take steps, with other relevant agencies, to protect them.”

A spokesperson for Gloucester Police said the review into the deaths of Mortimer and Ella states that the force’s policy for Clare’s Law previously permitted disclosure of prior convictions only to the individual in the relationship.

“However, since the introduction of statutory government guidance in 2022, the constabulary will now consider disclosure to another person in particular circumstances,” they added.

This article was amended on 9 January 2024 to include the information that a combined domestic homicide review and a serious case review stated Ms Mortimer had personally been informed of her husband’s history of domestic abuse.

The national domestic abuse helpline offers support for women on 0808 2000 247, or you can visit the Refuge website. There is a dedicated men’s advice line on 0808 8010 327. Those in the US can call the domestic violence hotline on 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines can be found via www.befrienders.org