THE Scottish Government has been urged to consider creating legislation criminalising forced marriage in Scotland, in a new report by MSPs on the Justice Committee.
The Committee wants Scottish ministers to consider if it would be practical for them to introduce legislation on the issue.
The Scottish Government has already said it backs allowing Westminster to legislate for this.
But, in an unusual move, MSPs on the committee said they were making no recommendation to the Scottish Parliament with regard to the specific part of a legislative consent motion that would be needed to do this.
Committee convener Christine Grahame urged the Scottish Government to consider bringing in its own legislation, saying: “If we have time to develop a specific Scottish response to forced marriage to reflect our distinct legal system, we should.”
Forced marriage not a crime in Scotland
Currently there is no criminal offence of forced marriage in Scotland but courts have the power to issue protection orders to those at risk, which if breached could carry a two-year prison sentence.
But without forced marriage being a criminal offence, Scotland risks failing to comply with the Council of Europe’s convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention.
The Scottish Government is now backing Westminster legislation which will make it a criminal offence for someone to use violence, threats or any other form of coercion to force another person into a marriage - with this offence having a maximum custodial sentence of seven years.
In a report on the matter, MSPs on the committee agreed that “in order to ratify the Istanbul Convention, a specific offence of forced marriage is required in Scotland”.
They added: “While the committee accepts that criminalisation of forced marriage is required to enable the UK to ratify the Istanbul Convention, it is not convinced that Scotland having the same legislation as the rest of the UK in this area is necessary.”
Committee wary over consultation
The MSPs said they shared concerns “that legislation has been brought forward in such a sensitive and complex area without any consultation in Scotland”, adding that they did not believe the Parliament and others had had “the opportunity to fully explore the proposed forced marriage legislation and its possible effects”.
They then asked the Scottish Government “whether it would be practicable to introduce its own legislation on forced marriage after a full consultation with stakeholders and to still comply with the Istanbul Convention in a reasonable timeframe”.
Their report also pointed out Police Scotland had “voiced some concerns” about how having both civil and criminal remedies to deal with forced marriage would work in practice.
As a result, the MSPs questioned “how the interaction between civil and criminal remedies will work together to promote victims’ best interests”.
Ms Grahame said: “The committee heard in evidence how forced marriage is a complex and culturally sensitive issue, and there is clearly not agreement from those people who deal with victims on the best way to tackle this dreadful practice.
“When organisations that assist victims of forced marriage are raising concerns that the proposals may stop victims from coming forward and seeking help, we think that it is time to pause and make sure that we get the right legislation for victims in Scotland.
“The committee has concerns about the Scottish Government’s approach and the lack of consultation in Scotland on the proposals. One way or the other, more work needs to be done in this area on how the proposals will work in practice and how victims’ interests will be taken into account.”