The Law Commission of England and Wales has launched its consultation on the reform of wedding law. The consultation paper, Getting Married: A Consultation Paper on Weddings Law, begins from the proposition that “Weddings law in England and Wales is in desperate need of reform”, that most of the current law dates from the 18th and 19th centuries, “when virtually everyone lived, married and died within a single community, and when most people shared the same faith and beliefs”, and that it harks back to a way of life that bears little resemblance to modern life in England and Wales.
The Commission points out that, 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 a Church of England or Church in Wales wedding can give notice to the church but all other couples must give notice at the register office.
- With few exceptions, all couples must have their wedding either in a place of worship or licensed secular venue.
- Couples cannot marry outdoors or even in the garden of a licensed venue.
“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 or protection and are not counted as married.”
Terms of Reference
The Terms of Reference agreed between the Law Commission and Government seek 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.
The issue of a limited reform of the law on marriage and religious weddings, based on the recommendations of the Independent Sharia Review, is being taken forward separately from the Law Commission’s wider review of the law on marriage ceremonies.
The Consultation Paper’s proposals include changes that would:
- Allow weddings to take place outdoors, for example on beaches, in parks, in private gardens and on the grounds of current wedding venues.
- Allow weddings to take place in a wider variety of buildings (for example in private homes) and on cruise ships.
- Offer couples greater flexibility over the form of their wedding ceremonies, enabling them, if they desire, to use a variety of ceremonies (religious and non-religious) to mark their weddings.
- Simplify the process and remove unnecessary red tape to make it fair to couples, more efficient, and easier to follow: for example, couples will be able to complete the initial stage of giving notice of their intended wedding online or by post, rather than having to do so in person.
- Provide a framework that could allow non-religious belief organisations (such as Humanists) and/or independent celebrants to conduct legally binding weddings.
- Ensure that fewer weddings conducted according to religious rites result in a marriage that the law does not recognise at all.
Responding to the consultation
The Commission’s preference is for submissions to be made using the online response form available on its website. Alternatively, comments may be sent:
- by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org; or
- by post to Weddings Team, Law Commission, 1st Floor, 52 Queen Anne’s Gate, London, SW1H 9AG.
The consultation ends on 3 December.