High Court and Court of Appeal judgments in 2017, beginning with Smyth, Re Judicial Review  NIQB 55, obliged the Northern Ireland Executive, on grounds of equality of treatment, to act to place belief marriage on the same legislative footing as religious marriage. Temporary arrangements are currently in place to give effect to those judgments, but full equality will require amendment of the current Marriage (NI) Order 2003, which recognises only civil and religious marriage. Under the existing temporary arrangements, belief marriage has become commonplace in Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland Department of Finance held a public consultation on marriage law from 15 November 2021 to 18 February 2022. It canvassed two changes: whether to make formal provision for belief marriage in Northern Ireland weddings law and whether the minimum age for marriage and civil partnership, which is currently 16 with parental consent, should be increased to 18. The consultation attracted 78 responses, with a majority from individuals. Organisations that responded included the Church of Ireland, the Roman Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church, NI Humanists, the NI Commissioner for Children and Young People and the NI Human Rights Commission.
As regards belief marriage, there was majority support for changing the current law to put it on an equal footing with religious marriage. Support for increasing the minimum age for marriage and civil partnership to 18 was close to unanimous:
“Few favoured keeping things as they are and there was only modest enthusiasm for compromise measures such as alternative or additional forms of consent (eg replacing parental consent with the consent of an authoritative body such as a court or requiring the consent both of parents and an authoritative body)”.
In view of these findings, the Minister for Finance, Conor Murphy MLA, has decided that his Department will now begin work on preparing legislation to provide formally for belief marriage and to raise the minimum age for marriage to 18; however, it will only be possible to legislate once there is a functioning Assembly and Executive.
For further comment, see Russell Sandberg: Marriage Law Reform in Northern Ireland.
(The law in England and Wales was changed by the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022. In Scotland, it remains possible for a 16-year-old to marry without parental consent.)