What is a forced marriage?

The subject of forced marriages is often shrouded in mystery, as this hidden crime tends to happen behind closed doors. Formally, a “forced marriage” is one where pressure or abuse is used to force an individual to get married, without their consent. The pressure to get married comes in many guises, from physical violence to emotional blackmail.

While the words may sound simple, the issue of forced marriages is anything but. Some victims of forced marriages may not realise they are being forced into the marriage, as they believe they are complying with their family’s wishes.

Forced marriages tend to be associated with South Asian cultures or young girls and women. In 2021, the Home Office’s Forced Marriage Unit (FMU) assisted in 337 cases, of which 71% involved girls and women under the age of 25. However, forced marriage can involve people across all walks of life, regardless of gender, age, nationality, religion, cultural identity or financial status.

If you or someone you know is at risk of being forced to marry someone without their consent, it can be reassuring to know that help is available. Seek advice from reputable family law solicitors, who can help you to navigate the laws that offer protection from forced marriage.

What is the difference between forced marriage and an arranged marriage?

Some families and communities practice arranged marriages, but these should not be confused with forced marriages. The key difference lies in the concept of “free consent”.

In an arranged marriage, families or communities introduce potential partners, in a similar fashion to a matching service. Both individuals are legally old enough and have the mental capacity to decide for themselves if they will marry the introduced person. In other words, they can exercise free will.

By contrast, one or both parties of a forced marriage will have no choice in the matter. The victim may be threatened, bullied, coerced or subject to physical, sexual or financial abuse, until he/she/they give in – they may be “agreeing”, but only out of fear or pressure. Not only is this an abuse of human rights, but may also involve domestic or child abuse, depending on the circumstances.

What is the law?

Awareness of forced marriages is growing, and two key laws have been introduced to offer protection to victims.

The Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 became part of civil law in 2008. The Act introduced Forced Marriage Protection Orders (FMPO) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, as a means to protect adults and children who are either being forced into marriage or have already been forced into marriage. Each FMPO is tailored to reflect the victim’s circumstances, and breaching the Order’s terms carries a 5-year prison sentence.

In addition to civil protection, there are also criminal laws that offer protection against forced marriage. The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 was introduced in England, Wales and Scotland and similar legislation exists in Northern Ireland.

Amongst other things, it improves the protection afforded to victims of forced marriage, such as preventing someone from taking another person overseas to force them to marry, or marrying a person who lacks the mental capacity to decide for themselves. Forcing someone to get married against their will can lead to a 7-year prison sentence.

Since 2017, victims of forced marriage have been afforded lifelong anonymity as part of the Policing and Crime Act 2017.

Forced Marriage Protection Order

Although each Forced Marriage Protection Order made by the Family Court is worded to fit the victim’s personal situation, in general, an FMPO can prevent someone from doing things like using physical violence, sexual or emotional abuse, or threats, to force the marriage to happen.

There are two main types of FMPO:

  • A Full Order lasts in perpetuity until an application is made to the court to discharge or change it;
  • An Interim Order is temporary. An application is usually made in an emergency situation and lasts until a further hearing takes place to either make it into a full Order or be discharged, depending on the circumstances.

An application for an FMPO can be made urgently and at short notice. Under the appropriate circumstances, it can also be made “without notice”, where the person trying to force the marriage is not notified of the Order until it has been made by the court.

Forced marriage help

Other forms of help are also available to support victims of forced marriage, and domestic or child abuse. Relationship breakdowns are complex and may have an impact on every aspect of a person’s life, such as their finances and children. Many law firms have specialist family law solicitors who can guide you through these aspects of family law.


An annulment is an alternative to divorce and will end a marriage. In the eyes of the law, it will mean that the marriage never took place. It can be a helpful avenue to explore if the victim’s culture or religion prohibits divorce.


Some forced marriages are not legally recognised in the UK, for example, if only a religious ceremony took place. However, if the marriage is legally recognised, then a divorce application may be necessary to end the marriage.

Child Arrangements

Where children are involved, the victim can apply for a Child Arrangements Order to formally agree on parenting arrangements with their former spouse. This can cover where children will live when they spend time with each parent, and most importantly, which parent will be the children’s resident parent.

Contact Waldrons Solicitors

If you believe that you or someone else may be at risk of forced marriage, then it’s important to seek legal advice as early as possible. Our professional team of family law solicitors at Waldrons has years of experience across all family law issues and can listen to your circumstances to provide advice on how to proceed.

Whatever your family law query, get in touch with us here at Waldrons today.

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Last reviewed on 11/07/23 by Alka Wood who is a Solicitor