On Tuesday 23 March, the House of Lords approved the draft Registration of Marriages Regulations 2021, which amend the Marriage Act 1949 to enable the introduction of a schedule-based system for the registration of marriages in England and Wales.
During the debate, Baroness Sherlock (Lab) said that she had had representations from clergy worried about the lack of notice. One had said:
“We feel a bit stunned about the timing of these changes. We were told some time ago that they were planned and then everything went quiet, and it seems like a strange time to be introducing them now, with a very short lead-in time, with many churches just reopening and the Covid guidance on weddings (and other things) likely to change again soon.”
Another said that it was proving difficult, as he was
“trying to tell brides what their ceremonies will look like now as we have a bulge of weddings in the middle of the passage of this legislation. Not enough time for transitional arrangements.”
She asked when clergy could expect to see the necessary guidance. She also noted that only clergy could watch the training videos, “even though in many parishes, lay people are involved in taking wedding bookings; that is from the GRO”.
Lord Hussain (LD) noted the issue of nikah wedding ceremonies held at a mosque, a wedding hall or at a private residence where an imam would lead a ceremony and issue a certificate but the registrar is not aware of those weddings and they are not registered with them—hence, those weddings have no legal status and asked what steps the Government was taking to work with Muslim faith leaders and local registrars to ensure that all marriages taking place in the UK were formally recognised.
Lord Lucas (Con) urged the Government to look again at the restrictions on where a wedding could take place, suggesting that allowing weddings to be held in the open air “would provide creative venues and a much-needed increased capacity for ceremonies” to cope with the expected rise in ceremonies at the end of the COVID pandemic.
Lord Paddick (LD) asked why an exemption was being made for the Church of England and the Church in Wales, whereby a member of the clergy will issue a marriage document instead of the marriage schedule issued by the superintendent registrar.
In response, Baroness Williams of Trafford said that the reason why the Regulations had taken so long to appear was because the Home Office had been considering options for updating the marriage entry to include the mother’s name, but that had not proved straightforward
As to the timeline, if the schedule or the document is not returned to the register office within the specified timescale, the superintendent registrar will contact the relevant person to advise that the marriage must be registered and to make arrangements for that to happen. It will be an offence not to return the signed schedule or document to the register office. If it gets lost or damaged in the post and it is damaged before it has been registered by the Registrar General, if they are satisfied that the marriage has been solemnised, they will authorise the schedule document to be reproduced and arrangements will be made with the couple, their witnesses and the person or persons who officiated at the marriage to sign another schedule or document, so that the marriage can be registered and the marriage certificate issued. On the issue of unregistered ceremonies, the Regulations were only about marriage registration and not wider marriage law.
As to Lord Paddick’s point about, was the difference in systems, the Regulations do not remove the “ecclesiastical preliminaries”:
“The marriage document will contain the same information as the marriage schedule, and we are not introducing universal civil preliminaries; we are just keeping in place what is already in place for the Church of England.”