A brave woman, Daphne Franks, wants to reform some of the laws connected with marriage. Since 2016, when her mother died and it emerged that she had secretly wed, Ms Franks has become a spokesperson for victims of “predatory marriage”. The term originates in Canada, where several states have altered their laws to insert safeguards aimed at protecting vulnerable people from being coerced into unions to which they do not have the capacity to consent. In 2018, Ms Franks’s MP, Fabian Hamilton, tried to use a private member’s bill to change the law in England and Wales along similar lines. The bill attracted support but ran out of time.
Legislation already exists to protect some of those who might be coerced into marrying. Forced marriage has been illegal in England, Wales and Scotland since 2014 (and is illegal in Northern Ireland under separate legislation). This most commonly involves people who are unable to consent due to a learning disability, and sometimes involves them being sent to marry abroad. In 2019, the government’s forced marriage unit offered support in 1,355 cases.
Predatory marriage is a different concept, but one which also engages the question of consent. It occurs when a person marries someone known to be vulnerable to secure financial or other gains. This is what Ms Franks believes happened to her mother, Joan Blass, who was a widow of 87 with a vascular dementia diagnosis when she was befriended by a much younger man. Over time, this man became a constant presence, but it was not until her mother died that Ms Franks learned that the couple were married. This gave Ms Blass’s husband control over her funeral arrangements, as well as her estate. To her daughter’s lasting distress, she was buried in an unmarked grave.
No one really knows how common such experiences are, but campaigners point to a pattern of behaviour that in other contexts would be defined as grooming. Typically, a predatory husband or wife seeks to alienate the spouse from other relatives, and a marriage is likely to take place under conditions of secrecy. Ms Franks and her MP have heard from hundreds of people with similar stories, and argue that the number is likely to grow as more people live for longer with dementia (currently, the number of cases in the UK stands at about 850,000). Another factor is the anticipated increase in worth of many estates, due to high property and asset values. The difficulty of securing adequate social care could also contribute to a situation in which older single people are susceptible to offers of help.
Of course, people have always got married for money and security as well as love – including to people disapproved of by their children and other relatives. This is their right. Ms Franks wants the law altered so that a marriage no longer automatically revokes a previous will. This would be a significant change and requires careful thought.
But the current position with regard to capacity is intolerable. It cannot be right that an elderly person who has set up a power of attorney, enabling someone else to make important decisions for them, can get married without that person being told. The Law Commission recently proposed a relaxation of the rules surrounding weddings – for example, allowing them to take place in people’s homes. But in key regards it is tighter, not looser, regulation that is needed, with registrars trained to interview people before they marry, and refer them for a capacity assessment if there is doubt about their ability to consent. Where they exist, we know that safeguarding loopholes will be exploited. This one must be closed.