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Girls ‘at heightened risk’ of FGM and forced marriage as police not told of protection orders

Girls ‘at heightened risk’ of FGM and forced marriage as police not told of protection orders

Girls and young women under threat of female genital mutilation and forced marriage are being put at unnecessary risk due to loopholes in the legal system that delay civil protection orders being shared with police, The Independent has learned. Reforms to a “chaotic system” were introduced in the form of a pilot scheme in July…

Girls and young women under threat of female genital mutilation and forced marriage are being put at unnecessary risk due to loopholes in the legal system that delay civil protection orders being shared with police, The Independent has learned.

Reforms to a “chaotic system” were introduced in the form of a pilot scheme in July after it was found investigations were being delayed and a number of girls were even removed from the country in breach of an order before safeguarding measures could be enforced.

While there have been improvements after the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) devised a central system for logging the orders, a recent review found forces were still only being informed in around 70 per cent of cases. The findings were presented at a joint event held by the NPCC and Goldsmith Chambers last week.

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Detective sergeant Pal Singh developed the pilot scheme after it was noticed dozens of protection orders were being sent to the office of the national policing lead on honour-based abuse that were weeks or even months old.

“When we conducted some basic checks, it transpired the local police didn’t know about them,” he told the seminar. “Some girls had been removed from the country in breach of the order as obviously no safeguarding or prosecutions could ensue without police knowledge.”

He added: “Failure to share orders with the police was causing young women and children to be placed at heightened risk until the crime had been committed. During this time the offender was at liberty to continue their pattern of behaviour placing numerous others, often female siblings, at risk of harm.”

The news comes as the number of British girls believed to be at risk of FGM has more than doubled in a year, with mentions of the hidden crime featured in 1,960 social work assessments in 2017-18 – more than twice the 970 cases reported the previous year.

Concerned professionals or an individual who believes they are at risk of abuse can apply to the Family Court for a protection order. Then a judge can grant the order and make directions such as the seizure of passports. A “process server” – an independent member of the public paid a fee of around £70 – serves the order on the respondent, but it is left down to the applicant to inform the police.

The NPCC found in many cases there were delays serving the orders and the police were not being informed.

Mr Singh said: “We found many cases where police were not aware of orders and earlier this year there were at least four cases where a girl was brought back to the UK following a protection order and the first sign of intervention was at the border on re-entry when police would then be informed of the breach.”

Now orders are collected through a single police email address and disseminated to the relevant forces via a national unit which issues advice in compliance with court order.  

Despite the enhanced system, a recent review found 30 per cent of orders were still going under the radar and the NPCC has made further recommendations.

The responsibility to inform the police should be removed from the applicant, according to Mr Singh. He claims the court should inform the police after the first hearing and the police should then be responsible for serving that order.  

He explained: “The police should be informed before the respondent so we can safeguard. Then the police should serve the notice – it may be if an order has been granted there is enough evidence to commence a criminal investigation.”

However, he told the conference: “This was not a position the Ministry of Justice welcomed.”

Charlotte Proudman, a leading barrister who specialises in FGM cases, agreed with Mr Singh. She said: “The courts should be responsible for notifying police and the police should have responsibility of serving the order otherwise significant delays can ensue during which time girls could be cut or forced into a marriage.”

She added the previous system had been “haphazard,” citing a recent example of a client she represented pro bono after they failed to secure legal aid.

“I went to court for a woman to protect her young daughter from having FGM performed on her by her paternal family,” she said. ”An order was granted, but the woman had no financial means to pay someone to serve it.

“In this case, the High Court judge said we should contact the police but they told us it was not their responsibility which resulted in delays. Eventually the woman took out a loan, but if the onus was on the police to serve these orders we would not have these gaps leaving girls at risk.”

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Andrew McFarlane, president of the Family Division, told the seminar: “The aim is for every single order made to be sent to the vulnerability coordinator. It’s only going to work if the information is sent to the unit.”

He said judges had informed him that reporting was taking place but that it could be better.

McFarlane later told The Independent: “The pilot will either be continued or it will be tweaked and piloted in the tweaked version.” He said he would consider the additional recommendations adding:  “I will sit in the room with the NPCC and the MoJ and we will discuss them.”

Last month, the home secretary Sajid Javid praised FGM protection orders saying 248 had been granted since their introduction in 2015.

A government spokesperson said: “So called ‘honour-based’ violence is despicable, inhumane and uncivilized, and this government will not allow political or cultural sensitivities to get in the way of tackling it. The Ministry of Justice is working with the National Police Chiefs’ Council to ensure the police are notified of all FGM and forced marriage protection orders.

“We will continue to monitor a pilot of a new system requiring notices to be served on a central police account, and will carry out a full evaluation upon conclusion.”

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