Law and religion round-up – 13th March

UK COVID-19 inquiry

On Thursday, the Government published the draft Terms of Reference of the UK COVID-19 inquiry to be chaired by Baroness Hallett. The inquiry will

“examine, consider and report on preparations and the response to the pandemic in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, up to and including the inquiry’s formal setting-up date. In doing so, it will consider reserved and devolved matters across the United Kingdom, as necessary, but will seek to minimise duplication of investigation, evidence gathering and reporting with any other public inquiry established by the devolved administrations”.

Its aims are twofold: to examine the COVID-19 response and the impact of the pandemic in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and produce a factual narrative account, and to identify the lessons to be learned from that process in order to inform the UK’s preparations for future pandemics.

The Government later announced a public consultation on the inquiry’s draft terms of reference, closing on 7 April. Responses can be submitted via the UK COVID-19 Inquiry website.

Exploring non-legally binding wedding ceremonies

The report of the research study by Rajnaara Akhtar, Rebecca Probert and Sharon Blake into non-legally binding weddings in England and Wales was published on Monday: When is a wedding not a marriage? Exploring non-legally binding ceremonies. As we mentioned last week, the report is to be launched at an online seminar on Wednesday 16 March, 16:30–17:45. You can register to take part here.

Changes in divorce law in England and Wales from 6 April 2022

HM Courts & Tribunals Service has announced that the new online service for applying for a divorce in England or Wales will be available from 6 April 2022. Couples must apply under the current law by 31 March or wait for the changes to come into force. The Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 reforms the legal requirements and process for divorce, and the remaining parts were brought into force on 6 April 2022 through the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 (Commencement) Regulations 2022, SI 2022/293 (C.11). The Act aims to reduce the potential for conflict amongst divorcing couples by:

  • removing the ability to make allegations about the conduct of a spouse; and
  • allowing couples to end their marriage jointly.

The Act also introduces a minimum period of 20 weeks between the start of proceedings and application for a conditional order. This provides couples with a meaningful period of reflection and the chance to reconsider. Where divorce is inevitable, it enables couples to cooperate and plan for the future. It will no longer be possible to contest a divorce, except on limited grounds including jurisdiction.

The Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 (Consequential Amendments) Regulations 2022, SI 2022/237 make amendments to primary and secondary legislation as a result of reform brought about by the 2020 Act; Paragraphs 1, 2 and 8 of the Schedule amend the jurisdiction grounds for divorce and dissolution consequential on the introduction of joint applications for divorce, dissolution, judicial separation and separation orders under the Act. The remaining amendments in the Schedule are consequential on the amendments made to the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 by the 2022 Act, updating the terminology in relation to divorce applications, for example replacing terms such as “decree nisi”, “decree absolute” and “petitioner” with “conditional order”, “final order” and “applicant”. This instrument will ensure those language changes are reflected across existing legislation. 

Contested heritage in the Church of England 

On 21 January, we published a guest post by Trevor Cooper, Contested heritage – A review of the Church of England guidance, which summarised the current position in the Church of England on memorials related to slavery, and its May 2021 guidance, Contested Heritage“. In his post, Trevor compares this to the secular position and discusses a number of aspects that might usefully be subject to further development.

The Cathedral and Church Buildings Division of the Church of England is currently seeking expressions of interest from “people with the time and skills” to serve on the Church Buildings Council or one of its voluntary expert committees. The CBC has also announced that it is establishing a new Contested Heritage Committee, which “will focus on the Church’s priority of racial justice as it is manifested in the material culture in our churches and cathedrals”. The closing date for all the CBC posts is 27 March 2022; further details are here.

Russia and the Council of Europe

Reuters reports a Russian foreign ministry statement that Russia will no longer participate in the Council of Europe. The ministry said that NATO and European Union countries were undermining the European body designed to uphold human rights, rule of law and democracy. Given that the scale of violations of the ECHR by the Russian Federation is second only to violations by Turkey (statistics here), perhaps that is no surprise.

Joshua Rozenberg comments further here.

Quick links

And finally…

On Tuesday – it being International Women’s Day – First Minister Nicola Sturgeon extended “a formal posthumous apology to all of those accused, convicted, vilified or executed under the Witchcraft Act of 1563″. It is thought that about 4000 people in Scotland, mostly women, were accused under the Act, many of whom were executed. The move follows petitions from the Witches of Scotland group and a planned Member’s bill by Natalie Don MSP. Sturgeon said that Parliament could decide to legislate to pardon those who were convicted under the law.


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