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Young Lawyers - Mandeep Dhami: Is it time to criminalise forced marriages?

Date:19 MAY 2011

Mandeep DhamiThe Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 has only been in force since 25 November 2008 and already the government are saying that it is not achieving it's aim and that forced marriages should be criminalised as they are "on the increase".

In the news on Tuesday, the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee said that a positive and clear message would be sent if forcing or participating in forcing an individual to marry became a criminal act. MPs complained that schools were not acting in forced marriages cases as was required under the Act and teachers had not been trained to respond properly. MPs also highlighted that there were immigration abuses in that victims are often under pressure to take steps for their spouses to be given indefinite leave to remain in the UK.

Committee Chairman Keith Vaz MP has said that there should be "zero tolerance" of forced marriages.

So is it really now time for forced marriages to be criminalised? When the Forced Marriage Bill was introduced into Parliament, the decision not to criminalise forced marriages was made not only because it was thought that this could dissuade victims and others to come forward, but also as the pre existing criminal law could be used to deal with offences that may be committed when forcing someone to marry such as kidnapping. Surely these are still valid points. I wonder whether it would really deter those perpetrators who feel so strongly about what they are doing that they consider any criminal sanctions are worth it, particularly when they know that a lot of their actions are already criminal offences. There is a real risk that victims and others close to them would not contemplate seeking protection from the Court if it meant that there was a risk of their family members ending up in prison. This could potentially perpetuate even more cultural and moral dilemmas and therefore I wonder whether we would be "jumping the gun" by criminalising forced marriages at this stage?

As the government has highlighted that there may be issues with training within schools, should we not first of all be addressing this? Domestic abuse was criminalised in July 2007 and there have been many reports that following this, there has been a reduction in victims coming forward seeking the Court's protection. So by analogy would there be a danger of this also happening if forced marriages were criminalised?

Even without criminalisation, as things currently stand, a breach of a Forced Marriage Protection Order could result in imprisonment for up to two years. So it seems to me that we already have plenty of mechanisms by which we can tackle forced marriages and that therefore we should be looking more closely at how to assist victims by utilising the help that is already available to them. 

Mandeep Dhami is an Assistant Solicitor at The International Family Law Group LLP in Covent Garden, London. Her particular specialism is in complex international children cases.

The views expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily those of Family Law or Jordan Publishing and should not be considered as legal advice.