The Law Commission’s report published recently recommended a complete overhaul of the current weddings law which it found to be archaic. The aim of its recommendations is to give couples more freedom about how they celebrate their weddings, while also maintaining, and indeed strengthening, protection against forced, predatory or sham marriages.

The Law Commission has been looking into this for some time, since it found the present wedding law is “… stuck in time” and “…does not meet the needs of the diverse society which makes up England and Wales today”.

As Sue Andrews, partner in the family team at B P Collins explains, couples marrying in England and Wales currently, must choose between a civil wedding or a religious wedding. And what might surprise people is that a religious wedding is sub-divided into the following types – Church of England or Church of Wales, Jewish, Quaker and any other religious group, and each one is subject to different rules and regulations.

And perhaps even more surprising, it is not possible to include in a civil ceremony, any form of religious content, so no hymns or readings which can cause a problem where for instance one partner has a faith and the other does not or a couple have different faiths.

As a result many couples are choosing not to legally marry, marry abroad or to incur the expense of two ceremonies – one which complies with the law and another which reflects them as individuals and their beliefs.

Another problem arising from the current weddings law is that some couples have a ceremony, which one or both of them do not realise that it is not legally binding and so gives them no legal status and could leave them vulnerable if their relationship breaks down or upon the death of one of them.

The recommendations would bring the Weddings Law of England and Wales in line with laws close to home such as in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Jersey and Guernsey, and also further afield such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

As Sue reflects, two of the most memorable weddings she attended were on a beach near Sydney and in a family garden in Perth, Western Australia. “It was the simplicity and personal element that meant the weddings were about my friends who were marrying. There was no formula around them. I would love to see the changes become law here”.

The Law Commission’s proposals

By changing the system to one based upon an officiant responsible for the ceremony, rather than one based upon the regulation of the building in which the ceremony takes place, the same legal regulations would apply to all weddings.

There would still be the need to give notice, however the process would be more streamlined. The Law Commission also recommends an in-person interview, this is to guard against someone being forced or coerced into marriage, not having the mental capacity to enter into marriage and also sham marriages.

There would also need to be a ceremony and an officiant’s (who would be trained and regulated) in attendance, “responsible for upholding the dignity and solemnity of marriage” key role would be ensuring that the couple expressly give their consent, sign the schedule to which there will still need to be two witnesses and ensure it is registered. However, the officiant need not conduct the ceremony.

The couple could also choose a location which has meaning to them – this could be in their home, in a forest, on a beach, a local park or village hall, a requirement being that the officiant must approve the location and in doing so consider it safe for those attending, and also a location at which the couple can focus on expressing their consent and the significance of that they are doing (“the dignity of the location”).

A couple will also have flexibility about the content of their ceremony. Again, the content must be approved by the officiant, however these changes will mean that a couple can have a ceremony personal to them; one which reflects their values and beliefs and one which could reflect a couple’s interfaith beliefs or non-religious beliefs and the Law Commission makes specific reference to the possibility of humanist ceremonies.

Sue says that these changes would bring about equal treatment to all religions and those with no faith. They will also enable a couple to have a ceremony which reflects them as well as their budgets. The day would really be about the couple. These are however only recommendations at this stage, but hopefully the new government will accept the same and herald in these long overdue changes.

For further advice or information on family matters, please contact family partner, Sue Andrews, B P Collins on 01753 279046 or email sue.andrews@bpcollins.co.uk.


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