Marriage Law

Current project status

  • Initiation: Could include discussing scope and terms of reference with lead Government Department
  • Pre-consultation: Could include approaching interest groups and specialists, producing scoping and issues papers, finalising terms of project
  • Consultation: Likely to include consultation events and paper, making provisional proposals for comment
  • Policy development: Will include analysis of consultation responses. Could include further issues papers and consultation on draft Bill
  • Reported: Usually recommendations for law reform but can be advice to government, scoping report or other recommendations

Allowing couples to have a wedding in a way that’s meaningful to them. In October 2017 the Government said it was not the right time for a full review of the law.

Download the scoping report

Download the summary

The problem

The main law which governs marriage is from 1836 and has failed to keep pace with modern Britain.

How and where marriages can take place is tightly regulated. At present, couples have to make a choice between a religious or a civil ceremony.

If a couple does not comply with the legal requirements, which may happen with some religious ceremonies, their marriage may not be legally recognised. People often only discover their lack of legal status at the time of relationship breakdown.

This means the parties have:

  • no legal status and are not counted as married
  • no protection in the event of the relationship breaking down
  • no automatic rights if the other party dies.

Researchers have highlighted that this might be happening prevalently in British Muslim communities, but it is an issue that other religious and belief communities may also be facing.

The project

In December 2014 the Government asked the Law Commission to conduct a review of the law governing how and where people can marry in England and Wales.

We conducted a preliminary study involving research of domestic and comparative law, and engagement with key stakeholders.

The aim was to identify and provide an initial analysis of the issues that needed to be addressed in order to develop proposals for the reform of marriage law.

We published our scoping paper setting out the findings in December 2015.

The scope

During the scoping phase we found that there were clear problems with the law. It highlighted potential problems with how marriages are registered, what paperwork a couple must complete before their wedding takes place, who can conduct marriages, and where they can take place.

As a result, a large range of questions would need to be addressed by a full law reform project, including:

  • What does the state need to know before people can legally marry?

 

  • To whom, how and where should that information be provided?

 

  • Should there be any restrictions as to the types of location where a marriage can be solemnized? For example, should marriages be able to take place outdoors?

 

  • What types of ceremony should be allowed?

 

  • Who should have to be present at the ceremony?

 

  • What are the minimum requirements for a legally valid marriage?

 

  • In what circumstances should non-compliance render a marriage void?

 

  • What, if any, offences and sanctions are needed to uphold the law of marriage?

 

  • Are any changes needed to the rules governing the process of the conversion of a civil partnership to a marriage?

Result

The then Minister of State for Justice, Dominic Raab MP, wrote to us on 11 September 2017 to inform us that the Ministry of Justice – which asked us to undertake our scoping work – does not currently support a full review.

The Minister indicated that priority was being given to reforms to address the increase in public and private family law cases currently putting pressure on the justice system.

We believe that reform of wedding laws has the potential to provide greater flexibility, allow all couples to marry in a way that is meaningful for them, avoid inefficiencies and bring the law up to date.

We do not believe that the need for reform will go away, and we welcome the Minister’s assurance that he will keep the possibility of further Law Commission work under review.

Documents and downloads

Project details

Area of law

Property, family and trust law

Commissioner

Professor Nicholas Hopkins