Forced Marriages in the UK

Foys Solicitors has extensive experience in the area of family law. Family law is a wide ranging topic, dealing with scenarios related to domestic abuse, family disagreements, divorce and child abuse, to name a few. However, one troubling family problem area that gets limited exposure is that of forced marriages.

This article is meant to serve as an information piece to raise awareness of the issue and the actions that can be taken by those concerned or those familiar with somebody who might be in such a position.

Not specific to culture or religion

Forced marriages are not the preserve of a particular culture or religion, the idea that it is, is a common misconception. People from many backgrounds, ages, genders, ethnicities and religions may find themselves forced into a marriage without their consent. The typical annual number for reported forced marriages in the UK varies between around 1200 to 1500. 2021 however was different, only 759 reported cases, likely due to the impact of Covid restrictions.

While the numbers do not appear high given the populations size in the UK, it is believed that the real number of forced marriages in the UK is likely much higher as many go undisclosed.

In November 2021 MP’s backed a Bill raised by MP Pauline Latham, that sets out to raise the minimum age for marriage to 18 principally to protect children. The bill, known as the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill, received a third, unopposed reading.

“In the context of the Children Act 1989 (CA 1989), a child means a person under the age of 18 except in relation to certain applications”

The current marriage law in England and Wales

The current marriage law in England and Wales requires parental consent if on one or other of the parties involved is between 16 and 17 years of age. However, it is clear that contrary to this, some marriages take place, under non-registered circumstances, at even earlier ages. Part of the reason for this is due to a loop hole – there is no law that forbids ceremonies involving under 18’s for religious or cultural purposes that do not get registered with the local council.

By raising the marriage or civil partnership age to 18, it makes all such arrangements under this age, including those of a religious and cultural nature, illegal.

Mrs Latham, when presenting the Bill, had highlighted concerns that children as young as 7 years old had been made to marry with no legal consequences for the parents and adults involved. She also noted that even with registered weddings involving children aged 16 or 17 and relying on parental guidance, they could still be forced into marriages that could ultimately expose them to child abuse and “damaged life chances”.

One of the anticipated impacts of the change affects marriages that take place outside of England & Wales. Any marriage involving under 18’s that takes place overseas, and because marriage law in the UK is devolved this would include Scotland and Northern Island, where one party is domiciles in England and Wales, will not be legally recognised including civil partnerships.

Parliament’s goal is to make the Bill law without delay and as such it will pass to the House of Lords.

Forced marriage is abuse

Many forms of coercion can be involved in forcing somebody to marry against their will, including through physical, emotional, mental or sexual means. Such marriages are an abuse against the person’s human rights. If the person is under the age of 18, a forced marriage is considered a form of child abuse.

Since June 16 2014, forced marriage is a criminal offence under section 121 of the Antisocial Behaviour Crime and Policing Act 2014, an offence that can lead to a seven year prison sentence.

Those particularly vulnerable are children and those with mental health issues, as there have been cases where individuals have used the incapacity of the other, forcing them to marry so as to benefit from the other’s financial assets. Circumstances such as these are spread across a wide demographic base and not confined to a particular ethnicity or religion. In short, it becomes a form of fraud.

It’s interesting to note that there are no religions that advocate forced marriage. The scenario comes about typically when arranged marriages are unwanted or go awry. Unwilling participant’s can tricked or deceived into travelling overseas, for instance for a holiday, only to find that they are attending their own wedding, sometimes when they are not even aware that an arranged marriage is even planned.

Forced vs arranged marriages

Just because somebody is involved in an arranged marriage, it doesn’t mean that it is a forced marriage. Many people around the world enter arranged marriages legally and with their full consent. Forced marriages though are entirely different and are illegal in many of the countries where arranged marriages are the norm. Of course, if somebody is part of an arranged marriage and this isn’t with their full consent, then this is likely to be a forced marriage situation.

The Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007

Under the Family Law act of 1996, a court can issue a forced marriage protection order (FMPO). This can be used to protect an individual being forced into a marriage against their will. Such measures could include requiring individuals to surrender passports.

In 2007 however, the The Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act came into force. This introduced new provisions into the Family Law Act aimed at preventing forced marriages and protecting those already in a forced marriage. The broadened scope means that a FMPO can include measures that prohibit, restrict or place additional requirements on individuals associated or involved with a victim. The Act details ‘involvement as:

“ . . . aiding, abetting, counselling, procuring, encouraging or assisting another person to force, or to attempt to force, a person to enter into a marriage; or conspiring to force, or to attempt to force, a person to enter into a marriage”.

The full details of the act can be found here:

The Forced Marriage Unit

The FMU (Forced marriage Unit) is a special unit within the government, jointly run by the Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth office. It was set up in 2005 to provide victims with advice as well as expert training and guidance to professionals.

The Unit’s website can be found here:

Some statistics on forced marriages

Figures are available from the Forced Marriage Unit for 2020. In 2020 the FMU provided advice or support in the following cases:

  • 91 cases related to a ‘reluctant sponsor’*.
  • 659 cases related to forced marriages not involving ‘reluctant sponsors’.
  • 3 cases related to both forced marriage and FGM (female genital mutilation).
  • 6 cases related to FGM.

(Source: Forced Marriage Unit; Home Office and Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office
* The FMU provided assistance when an unwanted spouse is due to move to the UK)

How to recognise a forced marriage

The tell tale signs are similar to domestic abuse of a child. The individuals concerned may exhibit the signs of physical abuse, but often the abuse is mental and emotional. Sometimes emotional blackmail is used to force somebody into an arrangement out of fear of damaging a family’s reputations of because of the health impacts not doing so have on an elderly parent, or even because the family a related individual overseas wishes to use the marriage as an opportunity to relocate to the UK.

Numerous cases have arisen where children have approached the school teacher, fearing discussing the problem with a family member would trigger a harmful reaction. In such cases, the teachers concerned have reached to the FMU and the FMU has acted with local services to remove the child from the parental home.

What action does the FMU take when a case is reported to them

The first consideration of the FMU is to ensure the safety and well being of the child concerned. The FMU will provide specific guidance to individuals that approach them on then actions they should take.

The FMU will work with local authorities, including the police, to impose a Forced Marriage protection Order on those involved, such as one of the parents. The order may restrict parents from applying for passports on behalf of their child, or outright restriction on travel overseas.

If a child has already been forced overseas, the FMU will work with the police and overseas agencies to force the parents to return the child to the UK where they will likely be placed in to safe accommodation.

Some instances involved individuals with limited mental capacity, sometimes children, but this can also involved older people who are being forced into a marriage without their comprehension, often to perpetrate a fraud. In these instances, the FMU will work with local social services where the adult social care department will likely carry out a capacity assessment. It is a criminal offence for somebody to be marries if they do not have the mental capacity to consent to marriage.

Resources

The following are links to some useful resources that may help those in such a situation, for those who suspect somebody maybe in trouble or those who have experienced a forced marriage and need to move on.

Forced Marriage Survivors Handbook

What is Forced Marriage – Leaflet

Guide to Forced Marriage and the Law – from The rights of Women

The Forced Marriage Unit