Northern Ireland

Fewer than 20% of requests for information granted under early warning domestic abuse scheme

The percentage of disclosures by PSNI less than many forces in England and Wales, while applications appear to be also lower in the north

Currently there is no obligation on police forces to suspend officers or staff facing allegations of violence against women and girls
Police disclosed information 300 times under early warning domestic abuse scheme (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

Information on a partner with a record of domestic violence or who could otherwise pose a danger was disclosed by police 300 times under a scheme designed as an early warning system for those at potential risk.

The number represents less than 20% of 1600 total applications for information over six years under the scheme introduced in Northern Ireland following the passing of the UK’s Clare’s Law.

However, that percentage drops to just 11% when the request is made by either or partner or third party who is not a PSNI officer or member of staff.

Clare Wood (Greater Manchester Police)
The scheme was introduced following the murder of Clare Wood, who was murdered by her ex-partner (Greater Manchester Police/PA)

One recent study covering England and Wales over the two years to end of 2023 reported a wide disparity in the percentage of disclosures, from five per cent to 75% with an average of just under 40% across all forces.

Under the scheme, if checks “show that the individual has a record of abusive behaviour, or there is other information to indicate you, or the person you know may be at risk from their new partner, the police will consider sharing this information with the person at risk”.

There may be no record or any information to suggest a risk, which would count among the number of applications where there is no disclosure.

Women’s Aid said the scheme has faced difficulties and challenges but there is some optimism more recently because the threshold for disclosure has been lowered due to legislative changes, including on coercive control and stalking.

The two strand scheme is named after Clare Wood, who was murdered by her abusive ex-boyfriend in 2009. It was introduced formally in the north in 2018. It is aimed at preventing potential future violence and other abuse within a relationship.

Under right to ask, a partner or that person’s close friend or family friend can ask the police to disclose information if they believe there is a danger. Police officers separately can request under the power to tell internally, which can then be used to move to protect a vulnerable individual.

Of the total 1603 applications up to the end of January, 2024, 1358 were made under right to ask, with 173 disclosures made. There were 245 internal applications. with 130 granted.

The PSNI’s Publication Protection Branch is tasked with assessing the risk based on an individual’s past offences, behaviour and complaints. It is not necessary for an individual to have a conviction for a past domestic abuse offence.

Women’s Aid’s Sonya McMullan noted the study in England and Wales identifying issues around the scheme, including the disparity in decision-making among forces.

Sonya McMullan from Women’s Aid attends the vigil outside Belfast City Hall (Liam McBurney/PA)
Sonya McMullan from Women’s Aid

The number of applications and the percentage of disclosures are much lower in the north than many regions.

There are “difficulties and challenges”, said Ms McMullen, identifying lack of awareness, problems over the application process and forms, and ongoing issues around the sharing of information among agencies.

But her organisation has seen an uptick in the number of disclosures as the threshold is lowered in line with the legislative changes of recent years.

While there have been problems embedding the scheme in wider violence and abuse prevention, it has “the potential to make a change”, said Ms McMullan.