For better or worse? The proposal to change UK's wedding law - explained

The Law Commission recently announced a proposal which would see the biggest overhaul to wedding law since the 19th century.

In the UK, the law currently states that couples have to make a choice between a religious or a civil ceremony. Restriction on where a couple could marry began with the Marriage Act in 1753, brought in to regulate marriages and try to restrict underage, or 'secret' marriages without the parties' parents' consent, and bigamous marriages.  The law has developed over time since then but many of the restrictions over location have remained.Parliament is now considering an overhaul of the law so that it will more accurately reflect today's society and where and how couples wish to marry.The Law Commission is considering reforming the law so that weddings can take place in “any safe and dignified location” such as family homes, gardens, beaches, forests, parks, village halls and cruise ships.This change will not only provide for a fairer system, but it will give couples more choice over where and how their wedding takes place.Many couples faced the devastating reality of postponing their weddings as a result of the COVID pandemic and on top of the emotional upset this caused, there was a huge strain on their finances with many losing non-refundable deposits.Over the past five years, we have seen a slow decline in the number of marriages taking place in comparison to the increase in cohabiting couples. There were 219,850 marriages in total in England and Wales and in 2019, a decrease of 6.4% from 2018. In 2019, there were 213,122 marriages between opposite-sex couples, a decrease of 6.5% from 2018 and 6,728 marriages between same sex couples, a decrease of 2.8%.The Office for National Statistics states that approximately 60 % of the population in the UK live as a couple and while the majority are married, around one in five are cohabiting couples. This is more common at younger ages with over two thirds of people (69.2 %) aged 16 to 29 years cohabiting.  These statistics have surely increased post 2020 given the knock-on effect of COVID.Couples who may have been put off by the idea of marriage because of the restrictive regulations and costs of hiring a particular wedding venue may now be able to marry in a place of their choosing in a much wider variety of locations.  This is a key advantage to the proposed reform.

In addition, the recommendations state that couples will be able to give notice of their intended wedding online, instead of giving notice at least 29 days before the ceremony at their local register office. Religious marriage

These reforms will also help those in certain religious groups. Many religions do not allow cohabitation before marriage and so, for religious couples, there is an added importance placed upon marriage, especially during the pandemic when civil marriages were restricted.

There will be many couples who celebrated their (often non-legally binding) religious marriages as soon as they could but are still waiting for their legal civil wedding due to pressure on local registry offices.

We often come across separating couples within minority religious groups who only realise upon the relationship breaking down that they did not have a legally binding marriage because they only had a religious and not a civil ceremony. Unfortunately, those couples will be treated as cohabitants in law, which is much more restrictive than the laws governing divorcing couples. A simplified and more accessible civil marriage process is likely to assist these couples who can now hold a legally binding civil ceremony at the same time and in the same location as the religious marriage.

If you have any queries please get in touch with Charlotte Coyle or Judy Bodansky in the Family Team.


The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the date of publication and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.

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