Forced Marriage – Why is the conviction rate so poor?

Within the space of two weeks at the end of May, there were two separate convictions for Forced Marriage within the UK. Both received widespread national media attention. The reason for this was that the first case was referred to as a “landmark case, a “first ever conviction”. The second case attracted similar attention, being described widely as the “second force marriage conviction in a week”. In the first case , a woman was convicted of taking her teenage daughter to Pakistan and forcing her to marry a man 16 years her senior. In the second, a mother and father were convicted of tricking their 19-year old daughter to go to Bangladesh to marry a cousin, against her will.

Following both convictions, Criminal Prosecution Service (CPS)  spokespersons from Birmingham and Leeds released similar statements to the press. In both the CPS rightly praised the courage of the victims in providing evidence of their ordeals. They also took the opportunity to highlight the gravity of the offence, one which they said they take very seriously. In Birmingham the spokesperson said, “as this prosecution demonstrates, the CPS will work with partner agencies to identify and prosecute those who coerce, control, dominate or exploit a victim to force them into marriage”. In Leeds the CPS said, “this successful prosecution sends a clear message that forced marriage is a very serious crime and those responsible will be prosecuted”.

However, whilst there was nothing wrong with this flag waving from the CPS, the media headlines raised one very overwhelming question. Why were these the first convictions for forced marriage in the UK, since it was made a criminal offence in 2014?

Is the reason for the low conviction rate due to the fact that in the UK we don’t have a forced marriage problem? The answer to this is of course, is a resounding “No”. The statistics show that we have a substantial problem and the stats only show the ‘tip of the iceberg’. Charities, non-governmental agencies, law enforcement and government departments all universally agree that the figures do not represent the true scale of the abuse, and that forced marriage is a hidden and massively underreported crime.

In September last year the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) together with the Walk Free Foundation produced the report ‘2017 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery’ which looked at the worldwide modern slavery problem. For the first time they included in their data, the figures relating to forced marriage. They estimated that in 2016 a staggering 15.4 million people were trapped within a forced marriage.

Just what is the extent of Forced Marriage in the UK? For the last month, the Guardian newspaper have published several articles highlighting the issues around forced marriage, also focussing on the low conviction rate. One of their articles relied on the publication of the UK ‘Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) statistics 2017’. The FMU is a joint Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Home Office unit which leads on the Government’s forced marriage policy, providing support to any individual, whether in the UK or overseas. The highlights of the 2017 figures are:

  • the FMU gave advice and support in 1,196 cases
  • 335 (29.7%) cases involved victims below the age of 18
  • 186 involved victims aged 15 or younger
  • 8% (930) cases involved female victims
  • 4% (256) cases involved male victims
  • 10% had no overseas element, meaning that the potential or actual forced marriage took place entirely within the UK

Another Guardian article featured an alternative set of figures obtained from two charities. IKWRO (Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation) revealed that they had identified that between 2014 and 2016 there had been 3,546 reports made to the authorities , whilst in the same period the charity Karma Nirvana had received 22,030 force marriage related calls.

Whilst it is accepted that this is a hidden crime, the FMU figures show that we were still made aware of nearly 1,200 cases last year. Not all of them will ultimately get anywhere near being a substantive criminal offence, but all the same, two convictions in 3 years doesn’t seem to be a great return. So, what is the reason?

Karma Nirvana is a UK charity that supports victims of honour-based abuse and forced marriage. Following the conviction, Founder and Director, Jasvinder Sanghera CBE, was widely quoted in the media and said that there needed to be a better support network in place. She highlighted that victims of forced marriage needed to feel confident in coming forward. Jasvinder has a point , for this is  crime that involves the victim approaching the authorities to report something that they are acutely aware might end in a prison sentence for their parent.  That is a major hurdle for safeguarding professionals and law enforcement agencies to get over.

Shortly after the second trial concluded the charity gave their take on the convictions in an article on their website titled ‘Our view on the Forced Marriage Convictions’. The main thrust of their article centred around the introduction of specific legislation in 2014 criminalising forced marriage and the lack of convictions. Like us they highlight the issue of victims being reluctant to prosecute their parents. Having spent various tours on domestic violence teams  and a period investigating serious sexual offences, I know only too well how difficult it is for victims to bring themselves to prosecute a person or people that they once loved , or still do.

However, if I have read the charity’s  article correctly, they challenge this belief that unwilling victims are the sole reasons for the low conviction rate.  They suggest that there appears to be an over reliance on using the fact that a victim is unwilling to prosecute, as an excuse not to proceed with a prosecution. They state that there are many other reasons for the lack of prosecutions, arguing that  the CPS  guidance for force marriage is ambiguous. The charity says,  “if a victim does not want to support a prosecution, this does not mean it automatically fails the public interest test”. They point out that the CPS should be more willing to pursue victimless prosecutions where there is sufficient evidence to do so, and that would lift the pressure on the victim.

What Karma Nirvana propose here is not impossible, but for police investigators, it is one of the most difficult cases to put together, particularly for offences that rely so much on the victim-based evidence. My experience tells me that Jury’s like to see and hear from the victim and in forced marriage cases, much of what has happened will come from the victim’s account. Witnesses willing to support a victim will be far and few between and will generally be hostile.

Despite that, Karma Nirvana are correct. We do need to take the pressure and the onus off the victims. We must find the will and the way to ensure that more people are prosecuted. Many crimes that have a safeguarding element can  depend so much on the victim – sexual exploitation, domestic abuse, county lines, trafficking and modern slavery, to name a few. We need to evolve and adapt our methods of policing, so that we find other ways of building a winnable case. For forced marriage, this is particularly difficult. In county lines cases , the police can covertly record gangs using children to deal drugs. In domestic abuse cases a police officer can use body worn cameras to capture the victim bruises, children crying and damage to furniture. In child sexual exploitation cases a child’s clothing can be forensically examined for DNA. For forced marriage, the supportive evidence becomes much more difficult to obtain. How do you know where, when and to whom this might be happening? It is difficult to proactively police this area, so we need to ensure that we use all the tools that are available to us.

Karma Nirvana argue that forced marriage has not been given the same treatment as human trafficking and modern slavery, either by the government or other safeguarding agencies. They point to the very close links between all three – forced marriage , human trafficking and modern slavery. The call for police and prosecutors to utilise modern slavery legislation in the fight against forced marriage.

A further Guardian article featured the views of Parosha Chandran, a leading UK anti-slavery and human rights lawyers who argues the same point. Parosha contends that authorities are failing to acknowledge that many cases of forced marriage involve complete offences of human trafficking and modern slavery. It is a fair point , for many victims of forced marriage are taken out of or brought into the UK to act as domestic servants – slaves who are required to clean and care for their abusers. Some may be forced to work in other jobs, often having their wages taken from them. Many are physically and sexually abused. In the two recent conviction cases, it could be argued that both girls were taken abroad for the purposes of exploitation, whilst in the Birmingham case the girl was forced to become enslaved to her ‘husband’ and his family. Could charges under modern slavery legislation have also been a consideration?It is not surprising this didn’t happen, for in the Guardian article Parosha points out that force marriage and modern slavery are not linked in prosecuting guidance, neither is forced marriage listed as an indicator of modern slavery under the national referral mechanism (NRM) process. Prosecutors appear to be missing a trick here, given that convictions for modern slavery and human trafficking can carry a sentence of life imprisonment, whilst force marriage carries a term of 7 years. Prosecutions under this legislation may have the effect of sending a clear signal to those potential perpetrators and could be a deterrent.

What about other offences – false imprisonment , kidnap , domestic assaults and facilitating rape?  Guardian journalist, Louise Tickle argued that when parents take their child abroad to marry against their will, then they are effectively “planning, assisting and encouraging child rape”. Most of Ms Tickle’s article is an unhelpful attack on the police and social care over the Birmingham case. She appears to have held her own Serious Case Review based on speculation. However, I do think she has a fair point around this element of rape.

The CPS acknowledge the very close relationship that forced marriage has with Honour Based Abuse (HBA). As part of their internal monitoring process the CPS actively seek to identify and record “any criminal offence of threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional) committed as so-called honour crime. Their guidance then goes onto to specifically list kidnap, rape, procuring an abortion,  encouraging or assisting suicide, conspiracy to commit assaults, threats to kill and murder as some of the more serious of crimes. It is not fair to second guess the considerations that CPS lawyers deliberated on in specific cases, but it may be that it is time that the  head of the CPS sends a message to the organisation. A reminder that prosecutors should consider all available charges when considering forced marriage cases, even events that might have happened years before (see footnote).

Is it fair to lay the low conviction rate, entirely at the door of the CPS? According to IKWRO , the CPS figures for 2016/17 reveal that they received 256 HBA case submissions from the police. This resulted in 215 prosecutions with 122 convictions (a 56% attrition rate). Some would argue that a total of 256 is woefully low. In fact, this figure represents only 5% of HBA crimes recorded by police forces. It is not known how many of these related to forced marriage, but such a low return for all crime that comes under the HBA banner, doesn’t particularly bode well for future forced marriage prosecutions. Have the police got to shoulder some responsibility here? What about our safeguarding colleagues in social care, health and education who are in a good position to spot the signs? What do we all need to do better to improve the prosecution rate, whilst still ensuring that the victims are at the heart of the safeguarding and criminal justice process?

My view is that forced marriage is still misunderstood by many professionals across all those agencies I have mentioned, including my own. I believe that there is still a viewpoint amongst many that forced marriage is a cultural ‘in house thing’, existing within ‘certain’ communities and there is a reluctance  to be seen to offend a community. Well it is true that it is more prevalent in certain cultures and communities, but it is against the law, is abuse and at the heart of it there are victims who deserves a proper safeguarding response. We have the laws, so now we need the victims to believe that there is process and people in place that they can trust in. Prosecutions might not always be the way forward, but there are also other ways of measuring success.

In the UK we have some of the best safeguarding policies in the world. The governments ‘Multi-agency practice guidelines: Handling Cases of Forced Marriage’ is not a bad document. What is absent is the lack of awareness, understanding and training around these policies. Public sector professionals have a lot on their plate, excessive workloads and limited resources. This leads to the inevitable non-compliance problems. Many professionals are unlikely to read and absorb a policy that they really think doesn’t apply to them, believing that they are unlikely to ever come across a victim of forced marriage? Sadly, this means they won’t know what to look for in the first place.

It is surely the right time for a parliamentary led working party to look at why the conviction rate is so low, to identify all the issues and make recommendations on how we can build on the success of those two convictions. A  close look at whether prosecutors are using all the legislation at their disposal, how we can better support the victim through the investigative and court process, and methods to encourage more victims to come forward in the first place.  Most importantly it is important that we are satisfied that safeguarding agencies have in place systems for their staff, so that professionals are confident in identifying the indicators of forced marriage and know exactly what their response should be.

Later this month , we look at some of the indicators of forced marriage and some tactics for professionals. Thanks for reading.

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