Clare's Law may hurt more than help, Edmonton lawyer says

A proposed law that would give police the authority to share a person’s criminal record related to domestic violence is raising red flags for at least one lawyer in Edmonton. 

Legislation first introduced in U.K. aims to help victims of domestic violence

Clare's law aims to give victims or potential victims of domestic abuse a means to find out about their partner's criminal past. (Getty Images)

A proposed law that would give police the authority to share a person's criminal record of domestic violence is raising red flags for at least one lawyer in Edmonton. 

Alberta's UCP government introduced Bill 17 on Wednesday: the Disclosure to Protect Against Domestic Violence Act, colloquially known as Clare's Law. 

The legislation would allow people to ask for their partner's or potential partner's criminal record involving domestic abuse. 

Amanda Hart-Dowhun, a director with the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association, said she's inclined to oppose the legislation, saying it would infringe on privacy rights of convicted offenders.

Many concerns surround Clare's Law, she said, including the appearance that it solves a complex issue. 

"It looks simple and it makes people feel good," Hart-Dowhun said. "It makes people think, 'look we've stopped domestic violence, now all that all that we need to do we've put it in the hands of the potential victims."

She said it ultimately places the onus and the responsibility on potential victims.

The rationale behind the law is flawed, she added, by assuming that awareness of a criminal record would persuade someone to leave their abusive partner. 

"I don't think that is accurate," she said. "The rationale underpinning Clare's Law misjudges the reason that most people get into or stay in abusive relationships."

Saskatchewan's law

Saskatchewan was the first province to pass the law in May 2019, based on the original law adopted in the U.K. in 2014.

Clare Wood from Manchester was murdered by an ex-boyfriend. Police reportedly knew he had a violent record, but did not disclose that information to Wood.

Jo-Anne Dusel, executive director of the Provincial Association of Transition Houses and Services (PATHS) in Saskatchewan, said Clare's Law is a tool for anyone who feels they may be at risk.

"Unfortunately many people who end up as victims of intimate partner violence tend to minimize the first warning signs, they tend to convince themselves that it's nothing serious," Dusel said. "Maybe they're imagining this sort of gut feeling that something isn't ok." 

If someone has suspicions about a partner or potential partner, they can request to see their criminal record from police. 

A committee, made up in part of police, domestic violence advocates and justice ministry representatives will review the applications, Dusel said. 

The final decision on whether to show an applicant another person's criminal record will be up to the police. 

The person who receives a criminal record background gets a verbal report only, she pointed out.

"They're never going to have a piece of paper that they can take out of the room with that information on it," Dusel said. "The information is strictly for that individual to keep themselves safe." 

As for concerns about infringing on convicted offenders' privacy rights, "safety does trump confidentiality," she said. 

Comparing statistics with the U.K., Dusel expects about 80 applications a year in Saskatchewan.

Clare's Law has not yet been enacted in Saskatchewan, though it could be in place by early 2020. 

Alberta's minister of community and social services introduced the legislation on Wednesday. 

The Alberta government says it has consulted a range of community organizations, as well as the province's privacy commissioner in developing the legislation.

The province says it will continue to continue consultations to ensure privacy concerns are taken into account. The government hopes to pass Clare's Law next spring.