Outdoor weddings in England and Wales: the truth behind the headlines

The MoJ has announced a time-limited relaxation to allow civil weddings on approved premises to be held out of doors. In a piece cross-posted from his website, Russell Sandberg explains the limitations of the change.

The Government’s announcement over the weekend that civil weddings outdoors are to be legalised on a temporary basis might, at first glance, appear to be a major development in marriage law and a massive support to the weddings industry following COVID. However, while this is a welcome change, it is also a modest and limited one. It does not answer the now deafening call for fuller reform of marriage law and there is a risk that this change might be wrongly seen as the “fix”.

The Marriage Act 1949 distinguishes between marriages according to the rites of the Church of England / Church in Wales and marriages otherwise solemnised. Marriages can be otherwise solemnised in four ways:

  1. Civil marriages in a register office or approved premises
  2. Marriage according to the usages of the Society of Friends
  3. Marriages for those professing the Jewish religion according to the usages of the Jews
  4. Marriages in any place of religious worship registered as such.

You will note that weddings conducted by Humanists or any other belief celebrants, weddings conducted by independent celebrants and (non-Anglican, Jewish or Quaker) religious weddings conducted outside a place of worship do not fall under any of the categories. The effect is that such weddings are not legally recognised unless the couple also have a civil ceremony (the first category on the list). The numbers of such weddings have clearly been a major factor in increasing demand on civil registrars post-lockdown.

The Government’s announcement is simply that marriages in approved premises will be permitted to take place outdoors on a temporary basis. In other words, if you have already booked a registrar to conduct your wedding at a hotel that is recognised as an approved premises then now the ceremony could be in the hotel gardens.

Wedding ceremonies by independent celebrants and belief organisations – many of which take place outdoors anyway – are still not legally recognised, meaning that such couples still have to book a register office ceremony – which will still be inside and which will add further to the backlog. They will still need to have two ceremonies – and who says that their wedding is the happiest days of their life?

The Ministry of Justice press release stated that:

“The change will benefit almost 75% of all weddings in England and Wales that are non-religious and which take place on approved premises, along with civil partnerships.”

It would be interesting to see where this figure comes from. I suspect it is 75% of all solemnised marriages – which would exclude the thousands of ceremonies by independent celebrants and celebrants from belief organisations, which are not legally binding.

The announced change is therefore modest and limited. It will be introduced by a statutory instrument – the Marriages and Civil Partnerships (Approved Premises) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 – which will come into force without a debate (and which has not yet been published on legislation.gov.uk). This means that the wider need for reform will not be discussed in Parliament.

The Ministry of Justice press release stated that:

“A Law Commission report later this year will present options for further reforms which will then be considered carefully by the Government. Options they are considering include offering couples greater flexibility to form their own ceremonies, allowing the ceremony to take place in a much broader range of locations, and powers to hold weddings remotely in a national emergency.”

It is good that there is recognition that further reform may be coming once the Law Commission delivers its final report later this year. But this is a very curious summary of what the Law Commission is looking at. Their consultation paper spoke about a more profound change towards regulating officiants rather than buildings and how this could accommodate belief organisations and independent celebrants.

The press release also stated that there will be a consultation on the new temporary change this autumn. This will provide a valuable opportunity to make the case for wider reform to overcome the injustices found in the current law on marriage. It also stated that:

“With the exception of Jewish and Quaker weddings, which for historical reasons can already take place outdoors, legal religious weddings will continue to take place in certified places of worship which are also registered for marriage, or churches and chapels of the Church of England or Church in Wales. The Government will legislate to allow religious marriages to take place outdoors when parliamentary time allows.”

This suggests that the Government might act on this before the Law Commission report. Enabling religious groups who have registered buildings to conduct weddings outside might be useful for some religious traditions, but it would not fully remove the discrimination found in the current law. It would still discriminate against religious groups who do not have a building and, depending on how the provision is drafted, on those who have a tradition of weddings in the family home or other indoors venue that is not a registered place of worship.

Such a change would not go as far as the Law Commission (according to their consultation document) but could be seen as satisfying the need for reform. This would not only be problematic for some religious traditions but would also continue to exclude independent celebrants and belief organisations.

The announcement from the Government is welcome but modest. We still need wider marriage law reform as I argue in my forthcoming book. To find out more about this, book to attend the webinar that will launch the book to hear the thoughts of Baroness Hale, Professor Gillian Douglas and Professor Jane Mair.

Russell Sandberg

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