Law Commission review of UK marriage laws – Updated November 2019
This post will be updated as new announcements are made – see our latest updates here and our original post below.
The Law Commission are undertaking a two-year project to review the current marriage laws in England and Wales, to make them more relevant to today’s couples. “The current laws date from 1836 and aren’t meeting the needs of many modern couples,” says Professor Nicholas Hopkins, who released the proposed plan earlier this year. “A reformed weddings law will allow for greater choice within a simple, fair, and consistent legal structure.”
Here’s the breakdown of how UK marriage laws could change…
Update: November 2019
Last week, Guides for Brides Director Alison Hargreaves and 13 others attended a pre-consultation of industry leaders held by The Law Commission to discuss what recommendations should be included in the consultation paper put forward to the public in Spring 2020. We’ve covered the general aims of the project below, but salient points of discussion on Monday included:
- Whether the current regulations and costs to licence venues for civil ceremonies need to be modified
- Whether there should be more flexibility to include suitable outdoor venues as well as boats and trains
- Whether 2 registrars are needed to conduct a civil ceremony, and how much they should be able to dictate how and where the ceremony takes place
- Whether we should move away from pre-approval of venues and instead adopt an approval system similar to that in Scotland
- Whether the ceremony could include religious icons, references or a religious blessing
- Whether unrestricted public access should still be a requirement for wedding venues
There was a particular focus placed on civil ceremonies and licensed venues, as Law Commission figures show that this is the route the majority of couples are opting for. 68% of opposite-sex couples marry in an approved civil ceremony venue, compared to 18.3% in churches and 7.1% in register offices. The figures are even higher among same-sex couples, with 88% choosing to marry at approved premises. We also found it interesting to note that of those approved premises, over 42% of civil ceremonies took place in hotels.
The cost of registering an approved premises
Currently, local authorities are responsible for setting the fee to apply for venue registration, which means the costs vary wildly depending on what part of the country you’re in. Interestingly, one of the cheaper areas is London, with the average cost sitting at £938. Compare this to the South East, where the average cost is double that figure at £1875. Overall, the average cost of registering a venue for civil ceremonies is £1428. Inevitably a proportion of these costs are passed on to couples getting married at each venue.
It was agreed at the pre-consultation that these costs should be regulated, and where possible lowered. A lower fee may be more appropriate to enable smaller venues to offer their services to couples, as well as venues hosting very few weddings (or even one-offs, such as private homes). Currently, religious buildings (including registered buildings for Anglican, Jewish and Quaker communities) have a much more standardised and simpler system, with much lower costs, and it was felt that civil venues should follow suit.
Current regulations state that prospective and licensed venues must be regularly open to members of the public, in order to allow access for anyone who may want to object to the marriage. This precludes private homes as well as trains, boats, and venues that require security measures or an entrance fee. The consensus was that objections to a wedding taking place was something that only ever happens in soap operas. It was largely felt that these restrictive measures should be done away with, making it easier for weddings to take place in a wider range of locations.
However, it was a strong opinion of the group that wedding venues should continue to be seemly and dignified in order to reflect the solemnity of the marriage vows. As such, we shouldn’t expect to see bouncy castles or pub carparks approved for registration any time soon.
There was discussion on whether disabled access should be a requirement, or whether couples would take that into consideration themselves if it was relevant to their wedding.
Currently, civil ceremonies require the services of two registrars, with costs to the couple varying according to area, day of the week and ceremony time. On average, a 2pm ceremony on a Saturday will cost a couple £460. The consultation group discussed whether two registrars are necessary, and what can be done to simplify the process of applying to be married – it was felt that as much as possible should be moved online to streamline the process for couples.
Registrars also have a large say in whether a civil ceremony can be held outside* due to weather constraints. It was suggested that they tend to err on the side of caution when bad weather is forecast, due to protecting official documentation (and potentially a preference to stay dry themselves!), and that more flexibility would be preferred by couples and venues.
*Current regulations allow for weddings to take place outside as long as the couple and the registrars are within a permanent structure, such as a gazebo or doorway, during the contractual part of the ceremony. Guests can be outside throughout.
Personalisation of ceremonies
In England and Wales, wedding venues must be pre-approved and licensed before couples can choose to marry there. However, in Scotland, the system differs in that couples and registrars work together to choose an appropriate venue and then submit any necessary paperwork. This ad-hoc system means that couples can choose venues that work to their wedding specifications rather than needing blanket approval for all weddings. Implementing this system in England and Wales would allow a lot more flexibility on both sides.
There is also currently a required separation of religious and civil weddings, with those having civil ceremonies banned from including any religious wording, music or even symbolism. Venues with stained glass windows, tapestries or art depicting religious scenes are technically precluded from holding civil ceremonies in those rooms. This seemed outdated to the consultation group, who agreed that couples should be able to include religious elements in a civil ceremony, including religious blessings in the same location as performed by the appropriate parties.
What happens now?
Following this pre-consultation, five independent commissioners will put forward their recommendations in a paper for public consultation in Spring 2020. The Government is expected to put forward recommendations by Summer 2021. On average, two-thirds of recommendations of this nature are put into action by the Government.
This timeframe means that, realistically, we won’t see any significant change in the law before the end of 2021, and won’t see the effect on weddings until Spring/Summer 2022.
In addition to the reform project, the law commission will be looking at more immediate measures that can make weddings simpler, more affordable, more personalised and more relevant to the needs of 2020/2021 couples.
This will involve looking at the current law and exploring where changes can be made to help couples and venues. The wording of the regulations can’t be changed without reform, but this interim measure will lead to various regulations being relaxed within the existing laws.
Originally posted July 2019
The announcement summarises which areas of UK marriage laws the Law Commission are examining. Here’s a quick breakdown of the areas that may be affected:
What happens currently in England and Wales
|What the Law Commission are considering|
- There are different ways to give notice for different types of wedding ceremony.
- Whether everyone getting married should have to give notice to the register office.
- Almost all weddings must take place in certain buildings.
- Where couples should be able to marry, such as outside, in a private home, or on board a ship
- Most couples must say specific words.
- Options for couples to express their commitment in a way that is more personal to them.
- A wedding must be either civil or religious.
- How the law might allow nonreligious belief organisations and independent celebrants to conduct weddings (with the decision of whether they should be authorised to do so to be made by Government).
- The law is not clear as to the status of a wedding that was not celebrated in one of the legally authorised ways and some religious ceremonies have not been recognised.
- What should be the minimum requirements for a marriage to be recognised by the law, such as giving notice, the consent of each member of the couple, and signing the paperwork.
- The law is complex and contains different rules about where a wedding can take place, depending on the type of ceremony.
- How to eliminate unnecessary red tape.
What happens next?
These plans are two years away from coming to fruition – the Law Commission will begin with a pre-consultation event to consider the effects of any proposed changes on both wedding venues and couples. There will then be a public consultation exercise in Spring 2020. As a market leader in the wedding industry, Guides for Brides has been invited to contribute to both, and we will keep our businesses up to date with proceedings.
While official changes proposed by the Law Commission won’t take place for another two years at least, some changes may come sooner than you think. The Government are also looking at interim measures to explore whether approved premises regulations could be reformed to allow outdoor locations for civil weddings and civil partnership ceremonies, whilst maintaining the requirement that venues be seemly and dignified.
For more information on proposed changes, read on …
Image credit: Pendrell Hall
The current state of UK marriage laws
The project aims to address, among other things, the fact that couples must currently choose between a religious or civil ceremony for their marriage to be legally recognised. This can cause complications for interfaith relationships, as civil ceremonies explicitly prohibit any religious content, and religious ceremonies are often less willing to incorporate elements of other religious faiths. While interfaith couples may have an independent celebrant-led wedding ceremony in order to incorporate both their religious beliefs, independent celebrant-led ceremonies and humanist (specifically non-religious) weddings are currently not legally recognised in England and Wales.
What’s more, couples having a civil ceremony must marry under strictly controlled circumstances, in either a register office or licensed areas of venues. These restrictions prevent legally-recognised wedding ceremonies taking place outdoors, at sea, in private homes and on military sites.
“The current law does not evenly cater for the needs of different religious groups. The legislation passed in 1836 was not designed with a multi-faith society in mind,” states the official project scope. “Our “buildings-based” system presupposes that people with religious belief would always wish to marry in their place of worship, but that does not hold true for all religions, including Islam, Buddhism and Jainism.”
The aims of the project
The Law Commission’s plans aim to simplify the process both of registering to marry, and allowing greater flexibility to couples with regards to their ceremony type and location. “[A simpler system would mean] fewer mistakes and less risk of a marriage being invalid as a result,” states the report. “A simpler system would also remove unnecessary hurdles and costs to getting married and be easier and cheaper to administer.”
However, the project is clear that the interests of the state must continue to be protected. The Government must still be able to control certain aspects of the legal elements of marriage, both to protect against forced and sham marriages, and also to be able to clearly note marital statuses of UK residents.
The overall aim is to provide ‘greater choice within a simpler legal framework’.
These changes have come on the back of a public consultation regarding non-religious ceremonies, such as humanist weddings, in 2014. Five years ago, the Government conducted a public consultation as to whether these should be recognised legally, and the result was considerable support for a change in the law. However, responses generally indicated that a more complete overhaul of current UK marriage laws should be considered, which lead to the Law Commission plans currently being considered.
Image credit: Spanish City
Here at Guides for Brides, we welcome any legal changes that allow marriages to feel more modern, equal and flexible, which the proposed plan appears to do. As Scotland currently legally recognises humanist ceremonies, it is sensible and logical that England and Wales follow suit. This will allow engaged couples more freedom with regards to wedding locations, and the religious (or otherwise) content of their wedding ceremonies.
While this may seem like it would undermine the market for wedding venues, we are confident that the majority of couples will still prefer a recognised wedding venue to a public outdoor space or private home. Only a wedding venue can provide the customer service, facilities and flexibility that modern couples expect of their wedding days. These changes will simply make it easier for venues to expand their ceremony options.
With the figures released earlier this year reporting that the number of marriages is continuing to decrease, we believe that an attempt to modernise the system and make it easier (and potentially cheaper) to marry can only benefit the industry.
Whatever happens, we’ll keep you up to date with all the latest changes as this project develops, and let you know how it affects you. Read the official project scope at lawcom.gov.uk.