"It is a form of domestic violence that dehumanises people by denying their right to choose how to live their lives. It is an appalling practice. No social or cultural imperative can extenuate and no pretended recourse to religious belief can possibly justify forced marriage.”

“Forced marriage is intolerable. It is an abomination. And the court must bend all its powers to preventing it happening. The court must not hesitate to use every weapon in its protective arsenal if faced with what is, or appears to be, a case of forced marriage.”

These are the words of the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby. At para [57] of his judgment in the case of In the Matter of Re B and G [2015] EWFC 3 he repeated what he said in Re K, A Local Authority v N [2005] EWHC 2956 (Fam) [2007] 1 FLR 399 at para [85]). They are strong words – and for good reason.

Forced marriage is still prevalent in the UK in 2015 at alarming rates: a crime of honour committed to protect the reputation of individuals, families and communities and targeted in the main at young women and girls, but not exclusively and including young men too. Recent data from HM Government’s Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) evidences this, whilst also confirming that forced marriage is a child abuse issue. From statistics which can be found on the government website, in the calendar year 2014 the FMU gave advice or support in 1267 cases involving people from 88 different countries, which is further broken down as:

  • 79% of cases involved female victims and 21% involved male victims.
  • Where the age was known, 11% of cases involved victims below 16 years, 11% victims aged 16-17, 17% victims aged 18-21, 14% victims aged 22-25, 8% involved victims aged 26-30, 7% victims aged 31+.
  • In 32% of cases the age of the victim was not known.

Introducing the criminal offence

Legislation to criminalise forced marriage was introduced in June 2014 and to date one successful prosecution for the specific offence has taken place. The Anti-Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act 2014 introduced a new offence of forced marriage on 16 June 2014. Some of the key features of the legislation are:

  • Taking someone overseas to force them to marry (whether or not the forced marriage takes place).
  • Marrying someone who lacks the mental capacity to consent to the marriage (whether they’re pressured to or not).
  • Breaching a Forced Marriage Protection Order is also made a criminal offence.
  • Definition of marriage to include all ceremonies registered and unregistered.

The civil remedy of obtaining a Forced Marriage Protection Order through the family courts will continue to exist alongside the new criminal offence, so victims can choose how they wish to be assisted. Indeed such a victim-led approach is recognised as one of the key benefits of this legislation.

Joined up justice

What is evidently clear is that we need a joined up and consistent justice response to protect victims of forced marriage and honour-based abuse across both the civil and criminal courts. Training of all justice professionals is key to highlight the victim-specific needs of this unique form of offending. Disclosure by victims and survivors is life-changing and life-threatening, which is why justice professionals are a key part of the risk management process. This also means we need non-government organisations such as the Sharan Project to work hand in hand with the lawyers representing victims in civil proceedings, police, prosecutors and health professionals. If we are to eradicate forced marriage and other harmful practices within a generation, the coalition of statutory and non-statutory partners must each play their roles in a concentrated way to achieve this joint objective.

The first conviction

On 10 June 2015 a 34-year-old man from South Wales was sentenced to 16 years’ imprisonment for crimes including an offence under the ASB, Crime & Policing Act 2015 – using duress (blackmail using video footage of the victim showering and threats to kill family members) to force the 25-year-old woman to marry him. The accused used the notion of shame to blackmail and exploit the victim too. This was the first conviction in the UK for an offence under this new legislation.

The court heard that the accused was particularly possessive and controlling of his victim during the time they knew one another. Between March and September 2014, he repeatedly raped and threatened his victim before forcing her to marry him against her will in an act of bigamy on his behalf. He was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment for the forced marriage offence.

Iwan Jenkins, Head of CPS Wales Rape and Serious Sexual Offences Unit has said: “...It is a testament to the strength of the case which we constructed with the police that we secured a guilty plea for the offences in this case...” This further articulates the importance of the joint response by a coalition of partners.

The efficacy of civil tools – forced marriage protection orders (FMPOs)

FMPOs were introduced in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in November 2008. Recent legislation in 2014 has criminalised the breach of an FMPO to add teeth to an already active civil provision. The police service in England and Wales has been proactive in obtaining FMPOs but what is startling is the paucity of applications by local authorities safeguarding those under the age of 18 years who may be exposed to forced marriage and accompanying crimes such as rape, sexual assault, physical assaults, threats to kill, false imprisonment, blackmail, stalking etc – as partly evidenced in the South Wales case. This preventative action is key to safeguarding children at risk of criminal offences.

The Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 inserts Section 63C (7) into the Family Law Act 1996 and determines that FMPOs can be applied for by relevant third parties as determined by the Lord Chancellor. Local Authorities are the only authorised relevant third party named in the legislation although applications may be made by the police. The court may make an FMPO on an application being made by the person who is to be protected by the order, a relevant third party and any other person with the permission of the court.

The importance of training for professionals

One thing that we are absolutely certain of is that nothing can replace face to face training on this subject to enable professionals to overcome their concerns in handling such cases and working with victims and survivors who have endured this offending. Disclosure by victims and survivors is life-threatening and life-changing. Training focusing on the legal provisions and the experience of victims and survivors is therefore an important step to develop the confidence of legal professionals – solicitors, barristers, the judiciary and others. The need to shift their awareness of the issues to understanding is vital. National joint training has, for example, been delivered to police and prosecutors in the last twelve months by the authors. This included the victim and survivor’s perspective from Karma Nirvana, a charity supporting victims of forced marriage. The training highlighted the need for a shared understanding of the respective roles of the CPS and the Police, and the importance of building strong working relationships due to the complexity of the cases involved. In addition, building such strong relationships is essential so that police investigators and prosecutors can provide the best service to victims and survivors.

Supporting victims and survivors

One organisation working in this area is the Sharan Project, who support women who have been disowned/ostracised due to harmful practices. This is what its founder, Polly Harrar, has to say:

“People are still unaware that Forced Marriage is a criminal offence in the UK and many still do not know where to go to get assistance... The success of any legislation should not just be measured by the number of convictions gained, although this does send out a clear message that victims who bravely come forward will be supported by the law, but we also need to address the impact and consequences for someone going through the court system, which in itself can be as traumatic as the abuse or risk of abuse they already face.   

The provision for specialist long-term support, post the courtroom, is key to break the cycle of abuse and ensure survivors are able to move forward towards living successful independent lives without fear.

Education, training and awareness is vital but so is ensuring that those affected have access to the most appropriate support for their situation...we have seen an increasing number of FMPOs being issued but this cannot be seen as the solution in every case. There must be a bespoke response to each case.

We deliver educational programmes, FM/HBV training and act as Court Experts on FM cases, particularly where FMPOs have been challenged and where specialist guidance is required.”

There are a number of non-government organisations also providing victims and survivors with support including Freedom, Karma Nirvana, Southall Black Sisters and the Asiana Project. There are also a range of providers such as MBL and Informa who provide access to courses and podcasts for practitioners.

Contributors Neelam Sarkaria 
& Detective Chief Superintendent Gerry Campbell