Outdoor Weddings – The Current Situation in England and Wales
The temporary measures to allow couples to legally marry outdoors in approved premises are becoming permanent on the 6th April 2022.
In the short term
Approved venues will be allowed to hold civil marriage and partnership ceremonies outside indefinitely from April following confirmation on 15th March 2022 that temporary law change would be made permanent.
These changes have been widely welcomed by couples, wedding planners and venues as they allow the ceremony to take place in a wider choice of outdoor settings. In fact, 96% of respondents to the government consultation backed the law change to become permanent for civil ceremonies.
For religious weddings, 93% of respondents supported the extension of the change to those having a religious wedding ceremony. The government press release assures that “Reforms to religious ceremonies will be made in due course after the consultation found every major faith group supported the move.”
This could mean a possible return to the Medieval traditions where weddings would take place under the church porch. As humanist weddings are non-religious, the changes do not currently impact them, but the longer term Law Commission review of wedding laws in England and Wales is likely to look at bringing laws in line with Scotland and Northern Ireland.
In the longer term
Meanwhile, the Law Commission has been looking at wider reaching changes to allow weddings to take place anywhere, with the officiant rather than venue being licensed.
There are understandable sensitivities within the industry; the changes are likely to decrease costs and offer more choice for couples, which is welcome news for those getting married. However the predicted changes could negatively impact some of the most popular venues, humanist celebrants and the registration service, while offering new opportunities to smaller and less accessible venues, as well as to independent celebrants who may be able to conduct legal ceremonies.
Timescales for these changes:
The recommendations will be published in July 2022, with an interim response expected by January 2023. It is likely to be July 2023 before decisions are finalised on whether laws will be passed to change the existing marriage Act.
Why it is helpful for the industry to have the interim response:-
Although the proposals have been welcomed by the industry and by couples, there is no guarantee that ministers will accept the Law Commission’s recommendations, which makes it hard to plan.
Preparation time is needed by venues to adapt outdoor venues and buy suitable outdoor chairs and sound equipment, and celebrants and officiants will presumably require training.
There is a long lead time for weddings; couples book the venue before anything else and this involves a substantial prepayment.
Venues, celebrants and couples will be looking for an early indication on whether the proposals will be put into place, along with an accurate time frame. This should allow venues, celebrants and couples to start to plan around the likely changes. There is no urgency in the timing for the laws being passed for the Law Commission reform; it is preferable to have plenty of notice especially now that in the interim, outdoor weddings can continue to take place.
We’ve spoken to the lawyer who is leading the Law Commission work to bring you the most up to date information. You can read more details on the progress of both consultations projects below.
1. Ministry of Justice consultation on outdoor weddings and civil partnerships in England and Wales
Following temporary legislation introduced in July 2021, which allowed outdoor civil wedding and partnership ceremonies in England and Wales for the first time, in December 2021 the Ministry of Justice announced a consultation on the scheme. As a result of this consultation, on 15th March 2022 they confirmed the legislation to allow outdoor weddings would become permanent, rather than ending as planned on 5th April 2022.
The new measures will provide greater flexibility and choice to couples and the weddings sector and could also extend to allowing religious weddings to take place outdoors at places of worship for the first time for most faiths, such as in the grounds of a church or chapel.
Impact of religious weddings
For weddings during medieval times, it was common for ceremonies to take place outside the front of the church. This is why many churches from that period have a projecting porch.
Around 55,000 weddings a year would be affected by this change – in 2017, 96% of these were Christian ceremonies. No religious group would be obliged to provide outdoor ceremonies, and existing protections to safeguard religious freedoms would remain in place.
93% supported extending the outdoor ceremony laws to religious weddings during the government consultation. The consultation also found every major faith group supported the move so have committed to looking at this in “due course”.
Impact on civil weddings and partnerships
Prior to last summer’s legislation, civil ceremonies at an approved premise such as a hotel had to take place indoors or otherwise within a permanent structure, such as a bandstand. The legislation would allow couples to have the whole ceremony outside in the grounds of such a venue.
Details of the proposals:
- The new legislation for civil ceremonies will also be introduced via amendments to the Marriages and Civil Partnerships (Approved Premises) Regulations 2005 to allow legal outdoor civil weddings and civil partnership registrations to take place within the grounds of Approved Premises.
- Since the proposal relating to approved premises is subject to this consultation and ordinary SI procedures, the Government cannot guarantee that a further SI would be in force by 6 April 2022. However, the Government will make every effort to provide a seamless transition from the current rules to the replacement rules.
- We intend that the proposed changes regarding religious ceremonies would be made through a legislative reform order under the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006.
- All churches, chapels and Places of Worship in which Church of England or Church in Wales where weddings can currently be held under the Marriage Act 1949, would be deemed automatically to include the outdoor areas within the property boundary. It would be a matter for the religious bodies to determine whether such weddings should be held and if so, at which locations and in what circumstances.
- In 2017, 54,346 weddings were celebrated according to religious rites. 74% were Anglican weddings, 11% were Roman Catholic weddings, and a further 11% were celebrated by other Christian denominations. Only 4% were conducted according to non-Christian religious rites.
- In order to hold legal outdoor civil weddings and civil partnership registrations, a venue would have to be approved or must become approved under the Marriages and Civil Partnerships (Approved Premises) Regulations 2005, as amended.
- Previously, premises which sought approval must have comprised a permanent built structure (or permanently moored vessel) with at least one room which was to be approved for civil weddings and civil partnership registration. Under the amended regulations laid in summer, such premises, if approved, could also use any outdoor areas linked to the same venue to hold these ceremonies without having to re-apply for approval, subject to certain conditions. The consultation proposes continuing this policy.
- It is proposed that civil ceremonies would continue to be able to take place fully outdoors or under a partially covered structure if this has at least a 50% open area. Requirements for public access and signage must also be met.
2. The Law Commission Marriage Reform review
A Law Commission review will separately present their recommendations for further marriage reforms to the Government in July 2022.
The main points being considered:
- how ceremonies could take place in a broader range of locations;
- who can solemnise a marriage;
- how marriage by non-religious belief organisations could be incorporated; and
- how provision could be made for the use of independent celebrants.
The timeline so far:
- Publication of a scoping paper in 2015 and industry consultations.
- Initial proposals published in September 2020 for 3 months of public consultation.
- In addition to a feedback questionnaire, a series of online meetings allowed discussions with various parties including celebrants and venues.
- The consultation period was extended by a month due to Covid lockdowns, and ended in January 2021.
The consultation period gives an opportunity to check if the proposals seem appropriate and to allow for points to be raised that the Law Commission hadn’t considered. The number of businesses supporting a particular option isn’t relevant.
- The final report, along with an impact assessment, will be delivered to the Government and published online in July 2022.
Agreed protocols would require an interim response from the responsible ministers within 6 months of the July 2022 publication date, with a final response within 12 months. It will require legislation and acts of Parliament to bring the proposed changes into effect.
As the pandemic hit before the initial proposals were published, the Law Commission were able to look at how the law could be more resilient to such situations in the future, to give enough flexibility so that weddings can take place when, for example, large numbers are unable to gather.
They added proposals for an emergency scheme that could be brought into force if needed.