Yesterday there was a Westminster Hall debate on marriage registration and certification introduced by Mrs Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con), the Second Church Estates Commissioner. In brief, she was arguing for
- the inclusion of mothers’ names on marriage certificates (on which Christina Rees (Neath) (Lab) has introduced a private Member’s bill scheduled for Second Reading on 22 January); and
- the adoption of the marriage schedule system used for marriage and civil partnership registration in Scotland and Northern Ireland (and very similar to that already used in England and Wales for civil partnerships), with a single electronic register instead of the current marriage register books.
Mrs Spelman said that she intended to introduce her own enabling bill containing powers to amend the Marriage Act 1949, by secondary legislation subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, so as to make provision about the registration of marriages in England and Wales. The Bill would not make mention of marriage certificates or the inclusion of mothers’ names: if enacted, the actual content of the marriage register (and therefore of marriage certificates, which are a copies of the entries on the register) would be prescribed in regulations made by the Registrar General with the approval of the Secretary of State.
She outlined some of the more detailed existing steps involved in registering a marriage and the changes she would like to see by regulation:
“Couples wishing to marry in England and Wales may follow either civil or ecclesiastical preliminaries, which is a jargonistic word for things such as the reading of banns. Some consultees in the Church of England expressed concern that ecclesiastical preliminaries might be abolished, but in my view they should definitely not be abolished. I do not think there is any proposal that the reading of banns should be abolished. Ecclesiastical preliminaries are available to those wishing to marry in the Church of England or the Church in Wales, which would not change. Couples would still be able to have their banns called or to obtain a common or special licence in exactly the same way as they can now. Clergy would continue to certify a marriage by their signature—clergy sought particular assurance from me on that point.
The only change to marriages following the ecclesiastical preliminaries is that, before the ceremony, the member of the clergy who is to solemnise the marriage would be responsible for ensuring that a document, called a “marriage document,” is completed and contains all the details required to be entered in the marriage register. The marriage document would still be signed. After the marriage had been solemnised, the newlyweds and their two witnesses would sign the marriage document, just as they currently sign the register…
The couple would be responsible for ensuring that the signed document was returned to the register office within three days to be registered, and a marriage certificate could then be issued. The couple would not have to return the document to the register office personally …; they could post the document or ask someone else to return it. In Scotland, it is traditionally the duty of the best man to return the signed document on the couple’s behalf.
Under the proposed new system, instead of two certificates for marriage, a couple would be issued with a single document called a ‘marriage schedule’, which would act as the authority for the marriage to proceed and would contain all the information required to be registered. As for marriages following ecclesiastical preliminaries, the schedule would be signed by the couple after the ceremony and returned to the register office to be registered. The proposed changes would not affect the point at which a couple are married, which happens once a couple have said the appropriate marriage declarations in their marriage ceremony. As now, the validity of a marriage does not depend on the marriage being registered, although it would be a legal requirement to register it.”
In effect, something very close to the current procedure in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
In reply, Home Office minister Richard Harrington (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Refugees) said that it was “obvious to anyone” that the system needed reform. He was not, however, convinced that the proposed Bill was the right way to go about it, though many of the points in it were right. What was needed was a vehicle that would transform the whole system of marriage registration for the digital age. It was not a simple issue and the Government wanted a comprehensive solution.
In effect, “We hear what you say: but…” Perhaps surprisingly, Richard Harrington did not refer to the fact that the Law Commission for England and Wales is currently completing the scoping exercise for the comprehensive review of marriage law requested twelve months ago by the Prime Minister. How radical the Law Commission intends to be is not yet clear; however, the team working on the review has already received representations that it is time to move to something like the Scottish system. And a move away from the present system has been given support by Stephen Trott’s Private Member’s Motion at General Synod calling for an end to banns.