When Clare Wood, who lived outside Manchester, England, broke up with her boyfriend in 2009, she thought that would be the end of it. However, like countless other women who leave or attempt to leave relationships in which they have been abused, she soon discovered it was not quite that easy. George Appleton continued and escalated his abuse, which ended only when he raped and killed her.
Despite the fact that Clare had contacted the police several times, her concerns were not taken seriously (a later investigation indicated that a number of the officers with whom she spoke lacked an understanding of the nature of intimate partner violence), and Appleton was not charged for any of his behaviour, despite the fact that he had a history of past violence, having served three prison sentences for offences committed against other women.
Following her death, Clare’s father campaigned to create a legal means for police to warn potential targets of abuse about their partner’s violent pasts, and legislation known as Clare’s Law was eventually passed.
In Canada, Saskatchewan was the first jurisdiction to pass and implement such legislation. Its Interpersonal Violence Protection Act, which came into effect last year, creates a process by which someone can find out whether they are at risk of harm at the hands of their intimate partner. Police forces are authorized to disclose risk-related information about someone to a current or former intimate partner if that information will assist the person in making decisions related to their safety. The police can also make a decision to release information if to do so would protect a potential victim.
Alberta followed suit with similar legislation in early 2021, and Newfoundland and Labrador has passed a law but not yet implemented it.
Ontario’s Bill 274
If NDP MPP Jennie Stevens has her way, Ontario will soon join these other provinces. Her private member’s bill, Bill 274, the Intimate Partner Violence Disclosure Act, was introduced to the Ontario legislature in April of this year. Initially, I was skeptical. There is little evidence that right to ask/right to know statutes and programs have reduced the rate of domestic violence homicides; given the generally low reporting rates of IPV, there is reason to wonder how many potential victims will reach out to the police to ask about their partner’s violent past; some victims may be reluctant to engage with the police for a variety of other reasons, and police as well as all other players in the criminal system, including Crown Attorneys and judges, must be well trained and educated about the dynamics of IPV. As well, victims, potential victims and survivors need to be able to access properly funded community-based services for support and assistance.
Nonetheless, as I have watched the development of Bill 274, I have become convinced that it has the potential to be a helpful tool for some of those affected by IPV.
A strong start
The Bill begins with a preamble that identifies the endemic and entrenched nature of gender-based violence, acknowledging that different communities require different strategies to address it. It also notes that:
“In addition to strong laws and law enforcement, survivors of gender-based violence require access to community support and counselling services, safe and affordable housing, including shelters, income support, mental health support and child care to ensure they have the resources necessary to leave unsafe situations safely. These services require adequate and sustained funding on an annualized basis.”
The preamble calls for education and training for all those who interpret and enforce the law and for the need to address the many myths and stereotypes about GBV. This is reiterated in the provisions of the Bill proper, which call on the Minister to “establish a program to ensure police and other government employees who come into contact with victims of domestic violence receive adequate and appropriate training” so they bring a trauma-informed approach to their work and are able to provide victims with appropriate referrals “to supports and experts who can assist the applicant with safety planning in the event the applicant wishes to leave their present relationship.”
The process to be followed, if the Bill passes, is similar to that in other jurisdictions. A person who believes they are at risk of IPV as well as certain other people (for example, a family member or someone working for an organization that is supporting the person at risk, with that person’s consent) makes an application through their local police force. If the application is approved, the police force provides the disclosure information. In addition, if the police believe someone to be at risk, they can release the information to the person, even if they have not applied for it.
Could this legislation be turned against those it is intended to protect? Certainly, that is an important consideration. One such possibility is that, if a woman were to seek disclosure information and then remain with her abuser, this could be used against her, particularly in a family court proceeding. Too many women already hear criticisms for not leaving the abuser sooner. With this new process in place, women might also expect to here comments like: “You knew about his abusive past. You should have left before now.” In fact, women have many valid reasons for not leaving or for returning to an abusive relationship, even though this is not always well understood in family court.
Bill 274 addresses this by stipulating that the fact that someone did or did not apply for disclosure information and did or did not act on that information cannot be used as evidence against them in a family court proceeding related to child protection or custody.
Bill 274 won’t be appropriate for all women, abusers will find ways to manipulate it to their advantage, those working in the family and criminal legal systems need more education about the dynamics of IPV, and community agencies that support survivors need sustained and adequate funding. There are, no doubt, possible negative consequences yet to be identified.
Nonetheless, it is an important step in the right direction. Let’s encourage our MPPs to set aside the usual partisan divides of electoral politics so that all parties can come together to support this very important Bill.