Solicitors battle to continue forced marriages work

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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. If the ruling is upheld on appeal, Miss Hutchinson's specialist practice, which has lasted more than 10 years, would come to an end.

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.

"They operate an out-of-hours service for time sensitive situations and are personally dedicated to this work."

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

Sources with knowledge of the case say the decision to deny Miss Hutchinson's firm legal aid funding in this area stems from a decision by the Legal Services Commission in April to introduce a points-based system biased towards firms handling domestic proceedings in the family courts.

Miss Hutchinson's omission is described as an "oversight" and it is hoped the commission will reverse its ruling after an appeal, sources added.

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."

Family law barrister James Turner QC also questioned the commission.

In a letter of support, he said: "Inevitably, the small, but specialist team, at Dawson Cornwell have only been able to provide this crucially important niche service at the expense of leaving to practitioners in other firms the more conventional types of family law work.

"Given the facts set out above, I was horrified to learn that Anne-Marie's firm (Dawson Cornwell) has been refused a renewal of its contract with the LSC to provide family law work, with the consequence that the sort of exceptional work described above can no longer be carried out by that firm on a publicly funded basis."

The news of the Legal Services Commission's decision came to light after a couple were murdered 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.

In May, Mohammad and Pervaze Yousaf, from Nelson, Lancashire, were shot dead in a graveyard in north-east Pakistan after their son's arranged marriage to his cousin broke down.

Miss Hutchinson said she was unable to comment while appealing against the commission's decision.

The Legal Services Commission said it would look at appeals on a case by case basis.

Earlier, its chair Sir Bill Callaghan said: "Ensuring quality advice provision, where it is needed, is at the heart of our civil contract tenders. We are confident that we now have quality-assured advice provision across England and Wales."