Forced Marriage Convictions: A view from the police

By Mindy Mahill, 15 September 2021

Editorial note:  We have watched several hearings concerning forced marriages in the Court of Protection. Here is some expert commentary to provide some background on how these cases are investigated. Anyone affected by the issues raised here can contact the UK Government Forced Marriage Unit – call 0207 008 0151 for advice and support for those facing forced marriage & practitioners in this field.

My background

I served as a Police Officer with West Midlands Police for 30 years and retired in 2019. I was a detective for 20 years working in local CID, counter terrorism unit and then for my final four years with the Public Protection Unit. 

I am a recognised expert in forced marriage and regularly advise Police Forces nationally on cases and provide expert evidence. I also work as an associate providing training to Police Forces and partner agencies. I am an Ambassador for the ‘Sharan Project’ which is a forced marriage charity who assist South Asian victims. I have contributed to an academic book titled ‘men masculinities and honour based abuse’ and also featured on a BBC crime series titled ‘the moment of proof’ which featured the first forced marriage conviction in England.

I am from an Indian Sikh background and class myself as second generation Indian in the UK. I was born and raised in Walsall, West Midlands which was an ethnically diverse community. I put my language and cultural skills to good use when I joined the Police by regularly translating for my colleagues.

My language and cultural knowledge have definitely helped me throughout my career and never more than when I started working within a public protection unit dealing with domestic violence cases.

Forced marriage when the victim can and does refuse consent

In 2017 I was working in the PPU when I was asked to take on a case of forced marriage. The victim in this case was a British born Pakistani female. The victim had many complex needs and had had a very troubled upbringing. She was especially guarded of Asian men. I used my experience dealing with victims and also the experience of being a father to two girls to gain her trust and confidence.

It was important for me to understand the laws in the UK for forced marriage because I had never investigated this offence before. The key aspect of the offence is related to consent:  if one or both parties don’t consent then it is forced. The offence is also committed if the victim cannot consent due to lack of capacity.

The victim in the 2017 had full capacity to make her own decisions but required an advocate to assist her in providing her evidential account and also her evidence at court. She was initially taken to Pakistan by her mother at the age of 11 and from the investigation I believe she went through some kind of wedding ceremony. She returned to the UK pregnant after her 12th birthday. She then spent many years in care and when she was reaching 18 her mother took her out of care and took her to Pakistan. She turned 18 in Pakistan and was then told she was marrying a man much older than her, she refused this but was unfortunately in a country she was not familiar with and had threats made to her, however she did manage to alert family members in the UK but by the time action could be taken she had been married to the same man that she went through a ceremony with when she was 11. (For a journalist’s report of the case click here.)

One of the main issues that arose during this investigation was proving that a marriage ceremony had taken place and having the evidence. This offence occurred in Pakistan and I found it extremely difficult to get evidence from a country we have no jurisdiction over. We had to piece evidence from different sources and witnesses. Another huge issue was keeping the victim on side, she had been so damaged over the years. 

Because this was the first case of its type being prepared for trial in England I did feel under pressure to get a positive result. A case of this magnitude cannot be investigated by one person and I was fortunate to have a small team working with me. I also worked very closely with CPS and our barrister. I think the most difficult aspect of this case was her safeguarding because she was at very high risk of harm from family members who felt she had brought shame on her family by reporting it.

This case literally took over my life, I was conducting safeguarding of her every day including days off and even calling her from holiday. The trial lasted 3 weeks and the victim gave evidence without special measures. Her mother initially denyied that  any marriage had taken place in Pakistan – however once she was shown evidence of the wedding (the wedding DVDs and some photographs)  she changed her defence.   She then  maintained that it was the victim’s idea to marry. aWe had managed to obtain the wedding DVD’s and some photographs.

The mother was convicted of forced marriage and received a 3.5 year custodial sentence, the maximum sentence being 7 years. Because this was the first case in England the judge did not have any sentencing guidelines and although I was hoping for a longer sentence overall it was an extremely satisfying result.

This case was the start of a journey I had never had expected to go through in my career. Because of the experience I gained in this case I started to then take on more cases of honour based abuse. To date I have applied for more than 20 forced marriage protection orders and repatriated victim from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Dubai, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan. In all of the cases the victims have been young girls aged from 17 – 23.

A Forced Marriage Protection Order (FMPO) is a civil order that is granted by a senior family court judge. If the victim is out of the jurisdiction of the UK then the case has to be heard at the Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ) in London. If the victim is in the UK then the case can be transferred to a local family court however this decision will be made by the RCJ, some serious cases will still only be heard at the RCJ. Nearly all of the FMPO orders I have dealt with none of the victims have supported a criminal case of forced marriage. Many victims still love their families and do not want to criminalise them. Many of the victims have endured horrendous ordeals and as an investigator I need to respect their wishes and not push them into making a criminal complaint. One of the biggest challenges I face time and time again with the repatriation of victims from abroad is if they do not have British citizenship.

We have many communities in the UK who hold EU country passports but have lived here for many years under the EU citizen program, some are even born here but hold passports from other countries. Once the victim travels abroad for example on a Dutch passport and they require assistance because of a forced marriage I would then need assistance of the Dutch government because the British Government would not have any jurisdiction. I do find this very frustrating because even though the victim has habitually lived in the UK they are not treated as UK citizens and it becomes a very beaucratic process.

I took on another case of forced marriage in 2018. The victim in this case was a British Pakistani girl. Her parents live in Pakistan and she was raised in the UK by her uncle and aunt. She was raised by them but not treated the same as their own children. When she was 19 she went to visit her parents in Pakistan after being told her mother was ill. Once there she was held captive by her uncle who had raised her, he attempted to force her to marry. The victim managed to alert the authorities in the UK and she was eventually repatriated using a forced marriage protection order. Once back in the UK she made a complaint of forced marriage against her uncle and aunt.

Again this case proved difficult to investigate because the offence occurred in Pakistan and much of the evidence was there. What also made this case difficult was that no actual wedding took place. It is important to understand that an offence can be committed if there has been a real threat of forced marriage. I did manage to secure some evidence in Pakistan and even had witness testimony from there, this did prove difficult due to having to use technology over the internet. I had problems with Internet access and the time difference between the two countries. This case took two trials before a jury reached a guilty verdict. I was now the first officer to secure two convictions for forced marriage in England.

I think keeping the same team from the first case was definitely a winning formula but in these cases there are no actual winners, victims can suffer years of abuse and their safeguarding is more important than getting convictions. Some of the toughest honour based abuse cases I have investigated have not resulted in a criminal case. The majority of victims do not want to criminalise their families and I have found that many of the perpetrators in honour based cases are not criminally known to the Police.

Forced marriage without capacity to consent or refuse

I have also investigated cases where the victim has reduced capacity. These cases are particularly difficult to investigate because many of the victims cannot speak for themselves and evidence is generally provided by partner agencies. Because of my own Asian background I know that many families want their children who have capacity issues to be looked after once they have passed away and they do not want the burden of them being looked after by their siblings. For this reason they are taken ‘back home’ and married. In many communities this is not looked upon as ‘wrong’ and is accepted that the family have done this in the best interests of their child. It can be said that some families do not even know that it is ‘forced marriage’ and a criminal offence.

A capacity case of forced marriage is extremely difficult to investigate because the threshold test for Criminal Prosecution Service is very high. In a recent case that I investigated all of the professionals involved with the victim stated that the victim lacked capacity to marry. However after several Family Court proceedings, an expert judged the victim to have enough capacity to consent to marriage – which conflicted with every assessment that had been done previously. (There is no published judgment.)

Some cases come to police attention once the marriage has taken place – but if the police are informed in advance of a marriage taking place then they can apply for a FMPO which will prevent the marriage going ahead, giving the police time to investigate and provide evidence to a family court judge.

Understanding the problem

I have now been investigating forced marriage and honour based abuse/violence for over five years and get asked all the time how it can be best investigated. In my opinion it is important to understand the community first. 

I will use Birmingham as an example. Birmingham has a large south Asian community and is heavily represented by India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. There are certain areas of Birmingham where a whole street literally mirrors a village in Pakistan and what I mean by this is that entire families in that street originate from the same place back home. I grew up in a very similar street and know that my parents wanted to be around their own community because they felt more comfortable and safer. The communities also surround themselves with creature comforts from back home which results in vibrant High Streets where they can buy everything they need that reminds them of back home. I find that many Asians will try to hang on to as many traditions and cultures from back home, although they have come to the UK for a better life they are still very proud of their roots.

A trip back home is a very important time and many families will see off their relatives and even go to the Airport in large numbers to see them off. When the first generation of Asians came to the UK families had to make a choice of who from the family came to England. Many families were from a farming background so somebody had to stay back to look after the farm. Fast forward to now and those that were left behind have an expectation that their siblings who came to the UK will return with their children who will marry relatives from back home so they can now come to the UK for a better life. In many South Asian cultures marrying first cousins in not uncommon.

In cases I have dealt with, victims have told me they had been promised from a young age to their first cousins, so growing up they knew that they did not have a choice of who they married. However after growing and being educated in the UK, they have nothing in common with their family members back home and feel that marrying them would not be compatible.

Many victims of forced marriage are tricked in going back home because they have either told their parents that they will not marry there, or it’s what their parents suspect. In many cases victims end up in remote regions where they do not understand the local area and sometimes even struggle with the language. Victims get trapped abroad and have limited options of getting help.

In the UK it is not difficult to get help from the Police or partner agencies, almost every adult has a mobile phone and Wi-Fi is freely available, however is some regions of South Asia having constant electricity and water can be struggle let alone WIFI. In many of the cases of I dealt with the victim have managed to either email an educational establishment or contacted a friend when they have had the opportunity. I have now repatriated victims of forced marriage from South Asia, the Middle East and Africa and each case comes with different problems and sometimes very little solutions. 

I have recently dealt with victims who have come to the UK from various European countries so hold passports from those countries. When they travel abroad they are not ‘British citizens’ even if they have habitually lived in the UK so if they get into difficulty they have to get assistance from the country they hold the passport for. If it is a case of forced marriage and the victim and suspect live in the UK then it is generally reported here and not in the country they hold the passport for. Some victims born in the UK will hold passports from countries their parents have nationality for example Holland. 

In a recent case I had to liaise with the Dutch Embassy in London to assist a family trapped in Sudan. This case involved young children some of which were born in the UK, however they held Dutch passports. The family no longer had any ties to Holland and had lived in the UK for many years but unfortunately they were deemed to be Dutch national so could not be assisted by the British consulate in Sudan. This case was very challenging because I had no jurisdiction in Sudan and the victims needed to be repatriated back to the UK. I worked with the Dutch consulates in London and Sudan to eventually repatriate the victims.

Investigating forced marriage and HBA/HBV is very challenging but also extremely rewarding, preventing victims from going through forced marriage and honour based abuse from their families is something I am passionate about.

Mindy Mahil was the officer in charge for the first forced marriage conviction in England.  Since this case, he has worked with partner agencies in the UK and abroad in repatriating victims who have been subject to forced marriages. He is nationally recognised as a forced marriage expert and provides expert evidence to the courts.

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