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Great progress is now under threat

SCOTLAND'S framework for tackling forced marriage is in its infancy but it enjoys the strong support of lawyers and campaigners, and it appears to be working.

Since 2011, the courts have been able to impose protection orders safeguarding young women and girls at risk of being forced to marry against their will. The system has been designed to encourage victims to come forward - a daunting ordeal in situations where, typically, a daughter or niece faces duress from within their own family. To that end, the granting of a protection order does not criminalise those seeking to force someone into marriage (though, importantly, breaching an order is punishable by up to two years in prison). So far, seven protection orders have been imposed; a single alleged breach is the subject of legal proceedings. The legislation allowing for all this was the result of considerable reflection and consultation. It counts as one of Holyrood's finer hours.

The concern now is that all the progress is under threat as a result of the need to make forced marriage a specific criminal offence. The Scottish Government believes it has to act to ensure Scots law is compatible with the Istanbul Convention, the EU-wide agreement on tackling forced marriage ratified by the UK Government last year. That view is shared, somewhat reluctantly, by the Law Society of Scotland which played a key role in, and remains committed to, the existing system. But, perhaps surprisingly, ministers have chosen to adopt English legislation making forced marriage a crime. Initially they planned to introduce a lower maximum sentence of two years, in line with the present penalty for breaching a protection order, but, as we report today, the minister responsible, Shona Robison, is now seeking to copy England's tougher regime, arguing the deterrent should be consistent across the whole UK.

Ministers no doubt hope that a twin-track approach, retaining protection orders while creating a new offence, will not jeopardise efforts to encourage victims to come forward. However, a single high-profile prosecution, one heavy prison sentence, could send a confusing and potentially damaging message to young, frightened women unsure of their rights. This messy situation raises serious questions. The UK Government has been criticised for failing to consult north of the Border over its approach to the EU convention. Why did it ignore Scotland? The Scottish Government, meanwhile, needs to explain why it prefers to adopt English legislation rather than start from scratch at Holyrood and attempt to fashion a system that meets the country's international obligations but does not undermine the system already in place.

If parliamentary time is an issue might better communication between the two governments have allowed the Scottish Government to begin drafting its own legislation sooner? These issues deserve to be raised by MSPs on Holyrood's Justice Committee today when Ms Robison appears before them. It would be a tragedy if, for whatever reason, Scotland's promising efforts to end forced marriage are blunted.

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