Forced marriage, parental alienation and domestic abuse: The last week in family law

A mother who forced her daughter to marry a relative almost twice her age has been sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison, in the first prosecution of its kind in the UK. In 2016 the mother took her daughter, who was then 17 years old, to Pakistan, claiming it was a family holiday and bribing her with the promise of a mobile phone. When they arrived, the daughter was told that she was to be married to a 36-year-old, and when she protested the mother threatened to burn her passport, and assaulted her. The mother subsequently returned to the UK without the daughter, but following the involvement of social services was taken before the Family Division of the High Court. The mother lied to the court that the girl had not been married and wished to stay in Pakistan, but the judge ordered her immediate return to the UK. The girl was brought back to the UK with the assistance of the Home Office, and told police and social workers what had happened.

That first forced marriage prosecution was followed just a few days later by the second. This case involved a couple from Leeds, who were convicted of tricking their daughter into travelling to Bangladesh in order to force her into marriage.  The couple told their children in the summer of 2016 that they were travelling to Bangladesh for a holiday to visit relatives. Once they arrived in a remote village, the daughter was told she was to be married to her cousin. When she refused, her parents took her phone away and threatened her with violence if she did not agree to the marriage. She was assaulted and her father threatened to slit her throat and to ‘chop her up’ in 18 seconds – one for each year of her life – if she refused to comply. After being made aware of the situation, the British High Commission in Bangladesh, the Forced Marriage Unit, and Bangladeshi police worked together to rescue the daughter and bring her safely back to the UK.

The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service in Wales, Cafcass Cymru, has published a review of research and case law on the subject of parental alienation. The review found that the evidence base for parental alienation was very limited, because of a lack of robust empirical studies. This in turn was partly because the term ‘parental alienation’ is contested, with no clear definition, and partly because the research literature is dominated by a small number of authors who tend to hold polarised views. The review also found that reported court judgments emphasise a proactive approach to ensuring that children have continuing contact with their non-resident parent, and that where allegations or issues of alienation arise, early determination of the facts is seen as the essential factor in achieving the best outcome for the child.

The President of the Family Division Sir James Munby has refused to allow a mother to publish details of a case concerning arrangements for her daughter, which took place in 2002. In the case the judge had made a catalogue of “extremely unpleasant findings”, and ordered that the daughter should reside with her father, with the mother only having very limited indirect contact with her. The mother sought permission to pass on a wide range of information relating to the case to her children and the media, so that she could tell her side of the story. However, the President refused permission, saying that it was for the father, not the mother, to tell the daughter about what had happened. He did, however, allow the daughter’s older half-brother to have copies of the original judgment, plus certain experts’ reports and witness statements, with the proviso that the half-brother should not disclose the documents to anyone, except his legal advisers, without the permission of the court.

And finally, a study by Women’s Aid and Queen Mary University of London has found that alleged victims of domestic violence continue to be cross-examined by their abusers in family courts, more than a year after the Government promised to stop such ordeals. Almost a quarter of survivors (24%) surveyed said they had been cross-examined by their abusive ex-partner. Three in five (61%) said there was no special protection, such as separate waiting rooms, different entry/exit times, screens or video links, despite the domestic abuse allegations. A Ministry of Justice spokesperson promised that the Government would “legislate to ban the unacceptable practice of abusers cross-examining their victims in the family court as soon as possible.”