Current project status
The current status of this project is: Complete.
List of project stages:
- Analysis of responses
- 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
The Law Commission of England and Wales has published its recommendations to reform weddings law, proposing a fairer system that gives couples more choice over where and how their wedding takes place.
This project was previously called “Marriage Law”
The main law which governs marriage is from 1836 and has failed to keep pace with modern life.
How and where marriages can take place is tightly regulated, and differs depending on the type of wedding. At present, couples have to make a choice between a religious or a civil ceremony, with no option for a ceremony reflecting other beliefs. Couples having an Anglican wedding can give notice to the church; all other couples must give notice at the register office. With few exceptions, all couples must have their wedding in a place of worship, a register office or a venue approved for civil weddings. Nor can they generally marry outdoors except in the grounds of approved premises.
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 when their relationship ends, on death or by separation. This means the parties have no legal status or protection and are not counted as married.
The background to the project
In December 2014, Government asked the Law Commission to conduct a review of the law governing how and where people can marry in England and Wales. We published our Scoping Paper in December 2015, in which we concluded that there was a need for a wholescale review of the law in this area. Government announced in the 2018 Budget that it would ask us to conduct a full law reform project, and after agreeing Terms of Reference, we began work in July 2019.
Terms of Reference
The scope of our project is set by the Terms of Reference agreed between the Law Commission and Government. The project seeks to provide recommendations for a reformed law of weddings that allows for greater choice within a simple, fair and consistent legal structure.
The review is guided by five principles for reform:
- Certainty and simplicity
- Fairness and equality
- Protecting the state’s interest
- Respecting individuals’ wishes and beliefs
- Removing any unnecessary regulation, so as to increase the choice and lower the cost of wedding venues for couples.
As part of the project, the Law Commission is considering:
- The legal preliminaries that should be required prior to a wedding.
- Where weddings should be able to take place, considering for example weddings outdoors, at sea, and on military sites, with a view to removing restrictive regulations.
- Who should be able to solemnize a marriage, including considering how a scheme could include weddings conducted by non-religious belief organisations and independent celebrants. The Law Commission will not, however, be making recommendations on whether as a matter of policy new groups should be allowed to conduct legally binding weddings.
- Whether specific vows should be required during a ceremony.
- How marriages should be registered.
- What the consequences should be for couples who do not comply with any requirements.
Our recommendations for reform
Our recommendations provide a new weddings law that gives couples greater choice within a simple legal framework to support and celebrate marriage.
We recommend comprehensive reform from the foundations up: an entirely new scheme to govern weddings. Our recommendations will transform the law from a system based on regulation of buildings to one based on regulation of the officiant responsible for the ceremony.
Under our recommendations, all couples, as well as all religious groups and (if enabled by Government to conduct weddings) non-religious belief groups, will have the freedom to decide where and how their weddings will take place.
Couples will be able to give notice of their intended wedding online, and to choose the registration district where they are then interviewed by a registration officer. Anglican preliminaries (for example, banns) will be retained for Anglican weddings.
Notice of upcoming weddings will be published online so that the information is accessible to the wider community.
Couples will be able to have a wedding ceremony that reflects their values and beliefs, by:
- having a religious ceremony in a venue other than a place of worship and without having to incorporate prescribed words into the ceremony;
- having a religious ceremony led by an interfaith minister that contains aspects of each of the couple’s beliefs;
- having some religious elements, such as hymns and prayers, incorporated into their civil ceremony, as long as the ceremony remains identifiably civil.
If permitted by Government to conduct weddings, non-religious belief organisations (such as Humanists) would be able to do so on the same basis as religious organisations.
Couples will be able to get married in a much wider variety of locations, including:
- outside, in a place unconnected with any building, such as in a forest, on a beach, or in a local park;
- in affordable local venues, such as community centres and village halls, as well as in their own homes;
- in international waters on cruise ships that are registered in the UK.
If permitted by Government to conduct weddings, independent officiants (that is, officiants who are not registration officers and are not affiliated to a religious or non-religious belief organisation) will be able to conduct civil weddings.
There will be much greater clarity as to the consequences that follow when a couple has not complied with the required formalities, and fewer weddings conducted according to religious rites will result in a wedding that the law does not recognise at all.
While offering greater freedoms to couples, the reforms are designed to preserve the dignity of weddings, to retain important safeguards, and to protect the longstanding practices and rules of religious groups.
We published our final report on 19 July 2022. It is now for the Government to review and consider the recommendations in our final report. We await an interim response.
For general enquiries, please contact us by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Area of law
Property, family and trust law
Professor Nicholas Hopkins