Forced marriages and the law of invalid consent recently examined in RM v AY  HKCU 139823May2023
The freedom to marry a partner of our choosing is a constitutional right. The Hong Kong Bill of Rights states “No marriage shall be entered into without the free and full consent of the intending spouses” (Article 19).
Yet, forced marriages do happen in Hong Kong or abroad involving Hong Kong Residents. It has been reported that Covid-19 has exacerbated the situation. Regrettably, despite being a signatory to several international treaties designed to protect against child and forced marriages, there are still no criminal laws in Hong Kong to abolish forced marriages. However, those who were forced into marriage whether in Hong Kong or abroad, can seek remedy from the Hong Kong Courts by asking that that their marriage be declared null and void on the ground that they did not validly consent to the marriage.
For the first time in Hong Kong, this ground was successfully relied upon in RM v AY  HKCU 1398.
The Petitioner is a Pakistani wife and a Hong Kong Permanent Resident who has lived in Hong Kong since she was 3 years old.
According to the Petitioner, during one of her family trips to Pakistan in March 2020, her father and relatives pressured her into marrying her paternal first cousin.
On 29 May 2020, her father inflicted physical abuse on the Petitioner. Out of fear, she agreed to the marriage reluctantly. The marriage ceremony then took place the next day on 30 May 2020.
Two months later, the Petitioner returned to Hong Kong without the Husband who remained in Pakistan.
The Petitioner commenced proceedings in 2021 and filed a Petition for nullity based on invalid consent. The Petitioner’s solicitors then served the divorce papers on the Husband in Pakistan.
The Petitioner also issued proceedings against her father pursuant to the Domestic and Cohabitation Relationships Violence Ordinance (Cap. 189) for a non-molestation order. The father eventually gave an undertaking of non-molestation and not to “thwart” her Petition.
By a letter, the Husband responded to the Petitioner’s solicitors, claiming that the Court’s decision will have no effect on the parties’ marriage under Sharia rules and that the matter is out of Hong Kong Court’s jurisdiction. He further claimed that he will have a second marriage if the Petitioner does not return to Pakistan.
A marriage is voidable under the Matrimonial Causes Ordinance Cap. 179 if either party did not validly consent to the marriage. However, the Petitioner must not have conducted herself to lead the Respondent to believe that she would not seek to avoid the marriage and that voiding the marriage would not be unjust to the Respondent. The Petitioner must also issue proceedings within 3 years from the date of marriage.
The Court also considered the law on invalid consent due to duress. It is a high threshold:
‘ W’s counsel refers me to the case of Mir v Mir  1 HKLRD (not a matrimonial law case) at §§59 and 60, which defines duress as “pressure illegitimately exerted”, and in the case of X v A  EWFC 118 which states that the alleged threat or action must constitutes “coercion of the will so as to vitiate consent”; and such as to “destroy the reality of consent and overbears the will of the individual”. These cases confirm the principles set down in the case of Hirani v Hirani  4 FLR 232(CA)’.
The high threshold prevents nullity based on invalid consent from being standardly relied upon by petitioners.
The Court’s Decision
The Husband was absent at the trial before HH Judge T. Kwan. However, the Court held that it was clear that the Husband had received the divorce papers and has chosen not to participate in these proceedings.
Having heard the Petitioner’s evidence, the Court found her credible. She was also able to produce photos of her injuries.
Regarding the issue of consent, the Court held that the Petitioner’s ‘will was overborne by genuine and reasonably held fear of physical harm, and her agreement to the marriage was overshadowed by this fear so as to “destroy the reality of her consent”’.
There was no apparent injustice to the Husband as he has indicated that he was prepared to marry a second wife. All other requirements for nullity were also satisfied.
Accordingly, the Court made a Decree Nisi of nullity.
The ground of nullity based on invalid consent offers an avenue to undo forced marriages. This provision is a useful remedy for those who have the opportunity and the will to launch proceedings in the Hong Kong Family Court, but it is a remedy that comes after the fact and may lead to severe repercussions for the individuals’ relationships with their family and community. While there remains distinct lack of preventative criminal measures and practical support, thankfully this case and much work done by local NGOs are bringing these issues to light and hopefully progress can be made legislatively.
Joanne Brown and Jamie Choy
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Disclaimer: This publication is general in nature and is not intended to constitute legal advice. You should seek professional advice before taking any action in relation to the matters dealt with in this publication.