“A brutal and cowardly attack”

Earlier this week, Jack Sepple was sentenced to 23½ years in prison for the February 1st murder of his girlfriend, Ashley Wadsworth. Ashley, a young (19 years old at the time of her death) Canadian woman, had travelled to England to meet Sepple (23 years old), with whom she had corresponded for seven years. On February 1st of this year, less than three months after she arrived and moved in with him, he stabbed her to death.

Not long after she arrived in England, friends began to notice Sepple’s controlling behaviours and, by January 2022, Ashley had decided she wanted out of the relationship. She asked her mother to pay for her to come home because “things were not going well.” Her mother immediately began putting the funds together to pay for a flight, which was booked for February 3rd.

The night before she was killed, Ashley ran to a neighbour’s for help during an assault by Sepple, but he persuaded her and the neighbour that things had settled down. On the day of her murder, Ashley texted friends, saying she needed their help to get out of the apartment. Those texts were soon followed by messages — later proven to have been sent by Sepple — saying that things had been “sorted.”

Her friends went to the apartment anyway and called police because, even though they could hear activity inside, no one answered the door. When police arrived, they found Ashley stabbed to death. Sepple immediately confessed to having killed her.

An all-too-common pattern of Sepple’s past violence emerged at his sentencing hearing. Since 2014, Sepple had faced numerous criminal charges, many related to his relationships with women: online harassment, assault, false imprisonment, coercive and controlling behaviour and breaching restraining orders.

In other words, he had a very visible track record of abusing women.

Clare’s Law

England and Wales have had a Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme (often known as Clare’s Law) in place since 2014. This allows police to disclose information to a victim or potential victim of intimate partner violence about their partner’s or ex-partner’s history of abusive behaviour. The request for such information can be made by either the victim or a relevant third party, such as a family member, or the police can release it on their own initiative.

Scotland is running a pilot Clare’s Law “scheme,” and similar initiatives have been implemented in parts of Australia. A number of Canadian provinces – Saskatchewan, Alberta, Newfoundland and Labrador and Manitoba — have passed or are in the process of passing disclosure legislation. In both British Columbia and Ontario, private member’s bills for such a protocol have been introduced but not passed.

One of the 86 recommendations arising from the recent triple femicide inquest in Renfrew County calls on the government of Ontario to study “the best approach for permitting disclosure of information about a perpetrator’s history of IPV and the potential risk to new and future partners who request such information, with a view to developing and implementing legislation.”

But does it work?

Disclosure protocols sound like a good thing and, no doubt, they are helpful for some women. However, there are challenges with them, too.

In the first two years that Saskatchewan’s protocol was in place, only 31 applications for information were made. One reason for this is that the government did not build in a public awareness campaign. Women not already connected with VAW services, especially those in rural and remote communities or otherwise isolated by their abuser, likely didn’t even know there was a process they could use.    

Alberta did publicize its protocol and, in its first year of operation, 372 applications were made. However, only 159 – 42% — of those who applied received a response. A number of women commented that it took many weeks to get a response and that they encountered incorrect information along the way: one woman was told she had to pay a $25 application fee – money she did not have – so she left the police station without applying when, in fact, there is no fee.

Given that few women – roughly 25 – 30% — report intimate partner violence to police, it is hard to imagine that many will seek out information about a new partner’s abusive history. In the early weeks and months of a relationship, it’s easy to miss the red flags. By the time the woman knows about the abuse firsthand, she’s not likely to be all that interested in what he has done in past relationships.

There are other worries. If a woman uses a disclosure protocol to uncover a history of abuse by her partner against other women and wants to leave, will she have the supports she needs to do so safely or will she risk being subjected to even more violence? What are the implications for a woman who finds out her partner has a history of abusing previous partners and remains in the relationship? Perhaps he convinces her that he has changed or that the previous partner lied to the police. She might have nowhere to go, lack the financial resources to leave or be terrified that her partner will kill her if she leaves him. She might be worried about the impact on her children. Will the fact that she knew about her partner’s abusive past and remained with him be used against her if she later has to call the police for help? In a family law proceeding? In dealings with child protection authorities?

Ashley Wadsworth could have used the English disclosure protocol but, as a young woman, new to the country, would she have known about it? If she had, would she have thought it could be helpful to her? Would she have known how to make an application? If she did so, would she have received the information about Sepple’s violent past quickly enough for it to be of use to her? Would she have known where to go for help? Might Sepple have sensed that something was up and escalated his abuse of Ashley even more quickly?

Of course, we will never know the answers to these questions because Sepple murdered Ashley, but they are questions that could apply to many women and that we should be asking before we race into creating a disclosure protocol in Ontario.

There’s one other question we need to ask: Should it be the responsibility of women to keep themselves safe or should this be the responsibility of social systems and structures?

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