On 2 June, Baroness Thornton (Lab) asked the following question [2 Jun 2015 : Vol 762(6) Col 289]:
“To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they plan to give legal recognition to humanist marriages in England and Wales, and if so, by what date”,
to which the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Faulks) (Con) responded:
“My Lords, the previous Government consulted on whether the law should be changed to allow non-religious belief organisations, including humanists, to conduct legal marriages. They concluded that there were broader implications for marriage law and asked the Law Commission whether it would conduct a review of the law on marriage ceremonies. The Law Commission is now undertaking a preliminary scoping study and is due to report by December. The Government will then consider the next steps.”
He informed the House that there is nothing to prevent humanists getting married and then having a humanist ceremony, and added:
“The quarrel, as I understand it—if the noble Baroness will allow me to continue—is that it is felt that both those ceremonies should take place at the same time. There having been a consultation, there was no consensus across the key stakeholders. The consultation raises a number of significant issues of a broader nature; in particular, the National Panel for Registration was concerned about the risk of forced and sham marriages. That is also a concern, incidentally, in Scotland, where there is a different system, based on the celebrant rather than the registration buildings and where there is also concern and a consultation about that very issue.
However, Baroness Meacher (CB) noted:
“During the 10 years of humanist marriages in Scotland, some 20,000 such marriages have taken place, which is more than the number of Catholic marriages and, by the end of the year, will number more than Church of Scotland marriages. Will the Minister agree to look into the popular demand for such marriages in England and Wales with a view to implementing the legislation that the previous Government passed, on the assumption of a recommendation to implement by the Law Commission?”
Baroness Warsi (Con) entered the debate with the following interjection, [Col 291]:
“My Lords, the practice of polygamy is a growing issue in the United Kingdom. Will my noble friend confirm that an Islamic marriage in the United Kingdom is not legally recognised and say what the Government intend to do to move towards legal recognition? That would provide essential protection specifically for women on the breakdown of that marriage and would also, as a by-product, deal with the issue of bigamy”,
to which Lord Faulks responded:
“My noble friend is no doubt correct about the real worry of polygamy. Certainly, that is a matter of concern for the Government. We are looking, as I indicated generally, at what is necessary to have appropriate formalities as to marriage, and I shall convey my noble friend’s concern to the Government.”
The debate concluded with the following exchange:
“Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, I apologise for my eagerness to ask the Minister my question, which may have seemed discourteous. Does he not recall that there was a substantial measure of support for the legal recognition of humanist marriage and does he not therefore think it would be just to allow it the same grace that is allowed to the Jewish and Quaker communities?
Lord Faulks: The exception for the Jewish and Quaker communities is based on the state of affairs in 1753, [i.e. Lord Hardwicke’s Act for the Better Preventing of Clandestine Marriage]. I agree that there are certain anomalies based on historical facts. There is no feeling on the part of the Government to discriminate against humanist marriages. It is simply a question of looking at the matter overall so that we can make our law consistent.”
Readers may recall the speech of Baroness Butler-Sloss (CB) last December in which she said [1 Dec 2014 Vol 757 (66) Col. 1112]:
“My Lords, it seems to me that the Government have been rather slow with this. There was considerable discussion on the same-sex marriage Bill, when I spoke in favour of the humanists having marriage. We have so changed the concept of marriage that I cannot for one moment understand why we are not just getting on with it. I very much hope that the Government will pick this up and get to the right result, which is to give humanists a marriage before the next election.”
We would hope that the matter can be resolved before the next general election, Thursday 7 May 2020.