A forced marriage is not the same thing as an arranged marriage. A forced marriage is a marriage conducted without the valid consent of both parties where duress is a factor. If consent is freely given, the marriage is not forced.
Being put under duress means being put under unacceptable pressure. This can consist of a threat of physical violence, but other forms of pressure also count. For example, being told that you will bring dishonour to your family and be socially ostracised if the marriage does not take place can count as duress depending on your age and social and cultural background. Similarly, a threat to your freedom, such as being told that your passport will not be returned to you or that you will not be allowed home unless you marry will constitute duress.
Forced marriage is often the inappropriate family response to the non-acceptance of an adult or child’s homosexuality. Dawson Cornwell has represented a number of victims who have been forced to marry as a means for the family to conceal the fact of their family member’s homosexuality from the wider community. These cases require particularly sensitive handling especially where the victim is abroad and in a country where homosexuality may be treated as a crime.
Forced marriage is a violation of internationally recognised human rights standards and cannot be justified on religious or cultural grounds. No major world faith condones such marriages. Freely given consent is a prerequisite for Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh marriages.
In cases of potential forced marriage, victims may need swift action taking on their behalf to stop the marriage taking place. If the victim is under 18 this will be deemed a child marriage, which is illegal, and the court can intervene to stop the marriage. In cases where there is a risk of the children being taken abroad he or she can be made a ward of court so that a marriage cannot go ahead. If the victim is over 18, non-molestation injunctions may need to be obtained against those applying the pressure. However, as these cases involve complex family issues and complex issues of international law they need to be handled with great sensitivity and expertise.
Where a forced marriage has taken place abroad, immediate action may need to be taken to bring the victim home. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has a specialist unit, the Community Liaison Unit, which assists victims of forced marriage in this situation. They can provide advice and liaise with British High Commissions or other bodies abroad in order to try and return the victim to the UK.
Once back in the UK, forced marriage victims can initiate proceedings in order to obtain a decree of nullity on the grounds of lack of consent. They can also take proceedings for their personal protection.
A nullity decree declares that the marriage is null and void. This can be preferable to obtaining a divorce due to the stigma attached to divorce in some cultures. It also recognises the fact that the marriage was not legitimate. However, the procedure for obtaining a decree of nullity is more complex and generally takes longer than obtaining a decree of divorce.
Dawson Cornwell’s reported case of NS v MI  EWHC 1646 (Fam) confirms the legal approach in nullity cases and the right to public funding.
Our 24 hour emergency telephone line in the event of a forced marriage emergency is: +44 (0) 79 5252 5699