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Sun, 27 September 2020

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Give couples more freedom to choose where they marry, Law Commission proposes

Law Commission

4 min read Partner content

As the experience of couples wanting to get married during the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, the laws governing how and where couples can marry are outdated and unnecessarily restrictive.

Currently, many couples face a conflict between how they wish to celebrate their wedding, and how the law requires them to celebrate it. Unnecessary regulation prevents couples from marrying in a place that is meaningful to them and having a ceremony with the vows, rituals and music that reflects their wishes and beliefs.

The Law Commission is consulting on proposals to modernise these laws, giving couples greater freedom over where they hold their weddings and the form the ceremony will take. The proposals would enable all couples to have a ceremony that is meaningful to them. As part of this, the proposals could allow couples to choose to have weddings outdoors or in private family homes, and to have simpler, less expensive weddings. Ultimately, the proposals will bring the process into the 21st century and allow the law to recognise the diverse ways that couples in England and Wales wish to celebrate their weddings.

Current wedding laws

Originally formed in 1836, the laws governing weddings are not fit for purpose as they are no longer meeting the needs of many couples. For example:

  • Couples must currently choose between a civil or a religious ceremony, with no option for a ceremony reflecting other beliefs.
  • To get legally married, most couples must have their weddings in a registered building – either a place of worship or a licensed secular venue. They cannot marry outdoors, even in the garden of a licensed venue.
  • The process for getting married is complicated, inefficient and does not work well for some religious groups. This can lead to couples failing to comply with the legal requirements and their marriage not being legally recognised.

The law in England and Wales has not kept up with changes in society, and is out of kilter with the approach taken to modern weddings in many other places, including Scotland, Ireland and the Channel Islands.

Proposals for reform

To modernise and improve wedding law, the proposed changes would:

  • Allow weddings to take place outdoors, for example on beaches, in parks, in private gardens and on the grounds of current wedding venues.
  • Allow weddings to take place in a wider variety of buildings (for example in private homes) and on cruise ships.
  • Offer couples greater flexibility over the form their wedding ceremonies will take, enabling them, if they desire, to use a variety of ceremonies (religious and non-religious) to mark their weddings.
  • Simplify the process and remove unnecessary red tape to make it fair to couples, more efficient, and easier to follow. For example, couples will be able to complete the initial stage of giving notice of their intended wedding online or by post, rather than having to do so in person.
  • Provide a framework that could allow non-religious belief organisations (such as Humanists) and/or independent celebrants to conduct legally binding weddings.
  • Ensure that fewer weddings conducted according to religious rites result in a marriage that the law does not recognise at all.
  • Provide a power to allow weddings to take place remotely during any future national emergency, such as another pandemic.

Professor Nick Hopkins, Family Law Commissioner at the Law Commission, said:

“A couple’s wedding day is one of the most important events in their lives, yet the 19th century laws are not fit for purpose and stop many couples having a wedding that is meaningful and personal to them.

“Our proposals would give couples the freedom to choose the wedding venue they want and a ceremony that is meaningful for them. By doing so, we hope to make the laws that govern weddings reflect the wishes and needs of today’s society.”

Next steps

The Law Commission will be consulting on the proposals until 3 December 2020. Once the consultation period closes, the Law Commission will analyse the responses, and use them to help develop recommendations. We are aiming to publish the final report, with these recommendations in the second half of 2021.

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