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A WEDDING LAW SHAKE-UP: AN EXCITING NEW PROPOSAL

A WEDDING LAW SHAKE-UP: AN EXCITING NEW PROPOSAL

Almost half of the weddings in 2021 that took place were originally planned to take place in 2020 but were postponed due to Covid-19, according to Hitched, leaving a backlog of weddings and pressure on couples to find an available venue, without a great expense.  

A government-commissioned report has put forward their recommendations for a major overhaul of marriage laws that would mean couples can get married at a location of their choice rather than at a registered venue. This could alleviate the coronavirus backlog and save on costs. Here, Emma Davies, partner and solicitor in Nelsons’ family law team, answers questions about the proposed changes and what they could mean for couples looking to tie the knot.  

What are the current rules? 

The current legislation, which dates back to 1836 and earlier, means that couples in England and Wales must have an officiant perform a religious or a civil ceremony with specific wording in a place of worship or licensed venue. There is no option to have a legally binding ceremony that reflects other beliefs, causing problems for groups such as Humanists. 

In the 2018 Budget, the government announced it was going to ask the Law Commission, a statutory independent body with a role of keeping the law of England and Wales under review, to conduct a full law reform project of the current rules. Work began in 2019 after agreeing on the Terms of Reference and recently, they announced their recommendations.

Do the recommendations mean I could get legally married in my garden or on a UK beach? 

The recommendations are aimed at creating a fairer system that gives couples more choice over where and how their wedding takes place, with regulation focussing on the officiant taking the ceremony, rather than where the ceremony is held. 

All couples would be able to be legally married in the location of their choice, from beaches to forests, to their own garden at home. Currently, destination weddings make up a quarter of all ceremonies but with the option to get married anywhere, and the uncertainty that arose from both Brexit and Covid-19, this could soon increase. 

Unlike the current rules, they also recommend no legally prescribed wording, allowing couples to have more freedom in what is said.

Officiants of wedding ceremonies would need to be trained and regulated to ensure that parties have the capacity, consent to the wedding and that the marriage is taking place for genuine and legal reasons. Additionally, there will be requirements as to the ceremony, notice, and various other considerations to meeting terms of changing the law.

What about religious ceremonies? 

The proposed changes are also aimed to address the concerns that some weddings, including religious ones, are not registered legally if they are not undertaken in accordance with the relevant laws.

An example of this was highlighted in Channel 4’s documentary and survey into Muslim marriages in England. It found that almost two-thirds of Muslim women married in Britain were not in legally recognised marriages as they have not had a civil ceremony alongside their Nikah religious ceremony. This means, the couple is treated as cohabitants which leaves them with limited recourses for financial relief on separation or death, which can have devastating consequences.

Currently, the law does not reflect today’s diverse society and “restricts how couples are permitted to celebrate their weddings for historical rather than current policy reasons”, as the report states. The reform could ensure that all religious groups can have a legally binding ceremony while applying their own practices and traditions to their ceremony as they wish. 

Will this make my wedding cheaper? 

The Commission predicts that the proposed reforms could make weddings more affordable for many couples. This could come at a crucial time with financial pressures continuing to grow. 

As a result of the restrictions under the current law, many couples who choose to have a ceremony that does not take place in an approved premises, have to have an additional wedding in a registry office or other approved location, adding to the cost.   

The recommended reform would provide the freedom for couples to choose a simpler at-home or outdoor wedding which should help them to bring down costs significantly, as the price of a wedding venue averages more than £5,000 in the UK, according to Money Helper. 

How will this impact the UK wedding industry?

As well as offering more choice and flexibility to betrothed couples, wedding businesses may also get a resurgence after what has been a difficult two years. Vendors involved in all aspects of the wedding industry suffered losses in 2020 and 2021. Bridal shops suffered a negative growth of -37.5%, photographic activities of -19.1%, and catering services of -25.5%, according to Truly Experiences. 

While the market has been picking up, there is arguably even more potential for businesses, and new start-ups to get a slice of the action with this law change. What people may save on their wedding venue, could go into other elements of the day, and local suppliers, in particular, may become more needed as people choose to opt for smaller or simpler weddings.

What are the next steps? 

Looking ahead, The Ministry of Justice has said they are going to carefully review the recommendations and respond to the Law Commission in due course. Although no official time frame has been set, the government must provide a response to the report within one year. 

There are concerns from groups, such as Humanists UK, who can’t currently have a legally recognised wedding in England and Wales that the changes, even if they are accepted, could take years to implement, and that legal recognition should be provided immediately.

The roots of the current law date back many centuries and do not reflect today’s diverse society and is discriminatory, permitting those practicing certain religions to marry in any location of their choosing whilst prohibiting those with other religious, non-religious beliefs, or no beliefs at all to marry only in approved premises or their grounds.  

It also prevents couples from having personalised and meaningful ceremonies in accordance with their religion or other beliefs or wishes. As a result of these regulations, weddings can be costly, not only to the marrying couple but also to those smaller businesses or community venues who, as a result, are unable to offer that service.

Finally, given the way that the current law has developed over the years, it is complicated and inconsistent, and I suspect causes some couples to believe that they are legally considered married when they are not resulting in various difficulties on separation and death. 

For more advice on the validity of ceremonies that have already taken place and the financial consequences arising as a result of separation or divorce, please visit: https://www.nelsonslaw.co.uk/divorce-and-separation/


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