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Marriage is a human right, protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, and under UK law by the Human Rights Act. Weddings should be joyous occasions when two happy people publically mark their commitment to one another. However, as we all know, that is not always the case. There exists a market for so called “sham marriages” and sadly the abusive practice of forcing children and young adults to marry against their will continues both here and abroad.

In a positive development, this week two new offences take effect which relate to forced marriage. The two new offences are (1) breach of a forced marriage protection order, and (2) using violence, threats or any other form of coercion for the purpose of causing another person to enter into a forced marriage.

A forced marriage protection order is a court order which contains legally binding conditions and directions that aim to change the behaviour of a person or people trying to force someone into marriage. The aim of the order is to protect the person who has been, or is being, forced into marriage. Applications for orders can be made either by the potential victim or by someone on their behalf. The court can make an order in an emergency so that protection is in place straightaway.

Breaching an order, so ignoring the terms imposed by it, is now (since Monday 16 June 2014) a criminal offence. The new offences apply if people are forced into marriage in England and Wales, as well as to UK nationals at risk of being forced into marriage abroad.

There will be a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment for breaching a forced marriage protection order, and seven years imprisonment for committing a forced marriage offence (using violence, threats or coercion).

The new offences followed a Government consultation which canvassed views on whether forcing someone to marry against their will should become a criminal offence, or whether the then existing civil remedy was sufficient. Most respondents to the consultation favoured the introduction of new offences, which the Government accepted, concluding that criminal offences were necessary, in addition to the civil regime, to act as an effective deterrent, to properly punish perpetrators, and to fulfil the United Kingdom’s international obligations.

We view the introduction of these new offences as a very positive development. It sends a strong message that this sort of abuse will not be tolerated, and the strengthening of the law will hopefully give victims the confidence to come forward to seek protection.

However the new law’s success will depend upon victims, and those supporting them, coming forward to report abuse. There are no reliable figures for how many forced marriages take place each year, but the Government’s Forced Marriage Protection Unit advises on around 1500 cases each year. Likewise the number of prosecutions is unknown, although there have been none in Scotland where forced marriage protection orders have been available for three years.

It is important that with the toughening up of the law, victims are not discouraged from coming forward. They are likely to need supporting through the prosecution process, as they will potentially be witnesses in the case against their own family members. Family dynamics are complex and the competing pressures on victims and potential victims of forced marriage can be hard to manage. It is important to see beyond cultural issues to the abuse, and now criminal offence, involved in forcing someone to marry.

Awareness raising and education will play a key part in backing up the legislation, and in minimising the risk of the new criminalisation forcing the practice underground. Excellent work is being done by organisations such as the charity Karma Nirvana in raising awareness and supporting victims.

Schools are likely to find themselves needing to talk openly about the topic to assist in removing the taboo. With the summer holidays coming up, traditionally a time when, tragically, some children are taken overseas ostensibly for a holiday, only to find themselves facing extreme pressure to marry a stranger, it is vital to raise awareness of the practice and the sources of help available to those at risk.

A great deal of help and advice for potential victims of forced marriage and to professionals dealing with cases is provided by the Forced Marriage Unit which is a joint Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Home Office unit which heads up the Government’s forced marriage policy, outreach and casework. It operates both inside the UK providing support to any individual, as well as overseas, where consular assistance is provided to British nationals. Details can be found here.

As always, if you wold like to make an appointment to talk to us about any aspect of family law, please call us on 01223 443333.

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