14 October 2021

Predatory marriage

By Miranda Marshall, Director, Hayes + Storr.

In her 1995 interview, Caroline Aherne, through her alter-ego Mrs Merton, famously asked the magician’s wife Debbie Magee: “So what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?”. They were both fully capable and, one must assume, their attraction was mutual.

Predatory marriage is no laughing matter, however.

The England and Wales Court of Protection case of re BU (2021) has raised questions of coercive control and how it affects a person’s capacity for making life decisions.

B is a 70-year-old woman with vascular dementia who wishes to marry N, a man nearly 20 years her junior, who has prior criminal convictions, including fraud.

The case came before Roberts J in the Court of Protection, who accepted that N had become ‘a central and crucially important part of B’s life and, as B sees it, pivotal to her emotional well-being and happiness’. B’s daughter said that the couple’s relationship was one of ‘coercive control exerted by N in several aspects of B’s day-to-day life and in relation to the management of her financial affairs’.

By the time the case came to Court, it had been determined that B lacked capacity to manage her finances and a Deputy had been appointed to manage her affairs.

B’s daughter sought a Court declaration that her mother lacked capacity to make decisions about her contact with others, including N; an Order preventing N having any further contact with B, an injunction to prevent such contact; and a Court Order preventing marriage between N and B.

Of relevance were B’s significant financial resources; N’s 12 convictions for fraud and 14 for theft and a 9-year prison sentence for dishonesty and blackmail; and a police investigation of his actions in relation to B, leading to his arrest.

The Court held that ‘B has indeed been manipulated by N with deliberate intent to secure for himself a financial benefit’. The Order was made with a penal notice attached. Roberts J held that B did have capacity to marry and so issued an injunction against N, to prevent it.

Legal issues involving predatory marriages have resurfaced in the news recently. Back in 2018 a Private Member’s Bill on the issue of automatic revocation of Wills upon marriage was presented by Fabian Hamilton MP, but has not progressed.

Research shows that predatory marriages are on the increase. There are calls for Registrars of Marriage to be given training to spot cases to prevent those marriages proceeding.

As the law stands, there are few protections available. Once the wedding has taken place, it is difficult to protect the victim, even with proof of the coercion or lack of mental capacity. Re: BU shows that prevention is always better than cure.

The legal maxim ‘hard cases make bad law’ does not apply to Re BU. Roberts J has been praised by mental capacity law experts for her intelligent and sensitive judgement. It was an extreme case with challenging ethical dilemmas. Fit-for-purpose legislation is now needed.

This article is for general information only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Please note that the law may have changed since this article was published.