Slavery law Liberty lobbied for in action

Posted by Emma Norton on 12 August 2011

Incredibly, up until April last year it wasn’t actually a criminal offence in this country to hold another person in slavery or servitude. Thanks in part to lobbying by Liberty, such modern day slavery was finally outlawed, with a new offence brought into English law through the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. This week, in London, we saw one of the first convictions under this new legislation that we campaigned so hard for.

At Southwark Crown Court yesterday, a jury convicted an employer of holding a vulnerable young woman in servitude. Rebecca Balira had brought Methodia Mathias from Tanzania to the UK and was found guilty of forcing her to work as a slave for six months; from dawn until midnight, seven days a week.

Methodia was held in unbearable conditions. Her passport was confiscated and she was forced to share a bed with one of her employer’s children. She was prevented from contacting her family and friends and subjected to vicious assaults in which she was punched and slapped. Methodia was never paid a penny and never given a day off.

The law that enabled Ms Balira to be convicted was a result of Liberty’s campaigning. In 2008, we represented a young woman in similar circumstances. Patience Asuquo managed to escape her abusive employer after being held as a slave, only to be confronted with an uninterested police force refusing to consider her allegations of abuse and assault. Using the Human Rights Act, Liberty forced officers to investigate and Patience’s employer was eventually prosecuted – but not for slavery or forced servitude, because these still weren’t offences under English law.

It was clear from Patience’s ordeal that there was an urgent need to outlaw modern day slavery. Following her case Liberty lobbied hard for a new serious offence of holding someone in slavery or servitude; one attracting a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison. In October 2009, independent Crossbench peer Baroness Young of Hornsey took an amendment through the House of Lords creating the new offence, which also included requiring another person to perform forced or compulsory labour.

Ms Balira’s conviction is one of the first under this new legislation. While we note that colleagues in other organisations who work with vulnerable women like Methodia are disappointed at what they feel is a lenient sentence, this conviction is still significant. We are glad to see that justice has been done, and that the law we worked so hard for is coming to such good use.

Emma Norton

Emma Norton

Head of Legal Casework