Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Aid blow in forced marriage fight

Solicitor Anne-Marie Hutchinson has rescued hundreds of women and girls from violent forced marriages

A firm of solicitors is fighting to continue its work helping victims of forced marriages after being told it no longer qualifies for legal aid funding.

Anne-Marie Hutchinson, from Dawson Cornwell solicitors, has rescued hundreds of women and girls, sometimes as young as nine, from violent forced marriages and the risk of so-called "honour killings" in countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

She also helps women in the Middle East and is one of the few specialists in the highly complex area, which often involves securing international court orders restraining abusive partners from pursuing their victims.

Many of Miss Hutchinson's British clients contact her from abroad when they are trying to escape a forced marriage imposed by their parents or other relatives. Most cannot pay for her help and rely on legal aid. But the firm has been told it is no longer eligible for legal aid funding to handle such cases.

This decision, described as "bonkers" by one charity helping victims of forced marriages, prompted Olaf Henricson-Bell, joint head of the Foreign Office's forced marriages unit, which last year handled nearly 1,700 cases, to write a letter supporting Dawson Cornwell.

In the letter, dated August 9, he said: "My unit has experience of Dawson Cornwell's work over several years. They have been involved in a significant number of forced marriage and comparable cases originating from right around the UK and indeed the world.

The Foreign Office nominated Miss Hutchinson for an OBE for her work in family law, specifically child abduction cases, which she received in 2002.

Shahien Taj MBE, executive director of the Henna Foundation, which helps women escape forced marriages, said the ruling could not have come at a worse time.

She said: "It's bonkers. It's not measured, it's not thought through and it hasn't been looked at properly in terms of the specialism that's required for certain cases. Cases referred to Anne-Marie are not your run-of-the-mill family cases. They are often very complicated and need a specialist approach. We are talking about people's lives here, we are talking about children's lives."

News of the Legal Services Commission's decision came to light after a couple died last week in Pakistan in an apparent honour-killing. Gul Wazir and his wife Niaz Begum, from Alum Rock in Birmingham, were gunned down in Salehana, a remote village in Nowshera province, after apparently refusing to allow their two daughters to marry their nephews.

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