To which a snap reaction might well be Eh?? However, as previously trailed on the BBC website, the Chancellor duly announced a review of wedding venues in England and Wales. The proposal was not in his Budget speech, but paragraph 5.52 of the Red Book published simultaneously with the Budget states that
“England and Wales have outdated laws about how and where couples can marry. The Government has asked the Law Commission to propose options for a simpler and fairer system to give modern couples meaningful choice. This will include looking at reducing unnecessary red tape and lowering the cost of wedding venues for couples.”
On a related topic, on 26 October – last Friday – the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Bill completed its report stage, was read the third time, and passed.
The Bill in its original form would, inter alia, have required the Secretary of State to make arrangements for the preparation and laying before Parliament of a report “assessing how the law ought to be changed to bring about equality between same-sex couples and other couples in terms of their future ability or otherwise to form civil partnerships” and setting out the Government’s plans for achieving that aim. However, that provision was replaced by a much tougher duty at report stage: a new clause (NC1: Reform of civil partnership) was added to the Bill, as follows:
“(1) The Secretary of State must make regulations to change the law relating to civil partnership to bring about equality between same-sex couples and other couples in terms of their future ability or otherwise to form civil partnerships.
(2) Regulations under this section must give effect to such equality within 6 months of this Act being passed.
(3) For the purposes of this section, ‘other couples’ means couples who but for the provisions of section 3(1)(a) of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 would be eligible to register as civil partners of each other.”
S.3(1) of the 2004 Act reads: “Two people are not eligible to register as civil partners of each other if—(a) they are not of the same sex”.
The Bill now goes to the Lords. The latest version – as amended in the Commons and introduced in the Lords – is here.
The Red Book reference to “outdated laws about how and where couples can marry” is probably about allowing couples in England and Wales to marry somewhere other than in a registered building (in line with the current law in Scotland and Northern Ireland). But if that be the case, it also, potentially, removes one of the Government’s principal arguments against amending the law to permit humanist weddings – that humanists do not have any buildings that they could register as venues under the current law – and, in my view at any rate, not before time. And, again in my view, it simultaneously calls into question the fundamental difference between the law in England and Wales and the law in the other two jurisdictions: registration of buildings in addition to authorisation of persons.
That, and the new clause inserted in Tim Loughton’s Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Bill, merely provide further evidence to suggest that the law of England and Wales around marriage and civil partnerships is in something of a mess. Nor is that simply my own prejudiced view: the Law Commission said as much in December 2015:
“The law governing how and where couples in England and Wales can marry is badly in need of reform. Getting Married, published today, reports on an initial scoping review of marriage law we conducted at the request of Government. The aim of the review was to consider whether the current law provides a fair and coherent legal framework for enabling people to marry, and to identify areas of the law that might benefit from reform. In this scoping report we explain that existing marriage law is unnecessarily restrictive and outdated and fails to serve today’s diverse society.”
But, as we know, the Government was unpersuaded by the Law Commission’s analysis and was not prepared to allow the Commission to undertake a thoroughgoing review. Perhaps ministers might now reconsider.