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Legal changes

Changes afoot following the Law Commission’s recommendations for weddings and civil partnership ceremony reform

The Law Commission has now released its long-awaited report on the laws governing weddings and civil partnership ceremonies.

As long ago as December 2014 the Government invited the Law Commission to conduct a review of the law governing weddings and civil partnership ceremonies in this country. This led to the publication of a scoping paper a year later which concluded that a wholescale review was required.

Fast forward to 19 July 2022 and the Law Commission has now released its long-awaited report which recommends proposals for reform which many would contend are long overdue.

Ultimately, the Law Commission has accepted that the current law is not working for many couples. It has concluded that the current regulations governing ceremonies are confusing, out of date and restrictive.

We live in an increasingly diverse society, and it is therefore not surprising that couples are now demanding greater choice so that they can celebrate their special day in a way which is personal to them and reflects their particular wishes and beliefs.

Criticisms levelled at the current regulations

At present, there are strict rules surrounding how and where marriages and civil ceremonies can take place, depending upon the type of wedding. Couples can either choose to have a religious ceremony or a civil ceremony, but they cannot opt for a ceremony reflecting other beliefs.

Generally, subject to a small number of exceptions, all couples must arrange for their ceremony to be held in a place of worship, a registry office or a venue approved for civil weddings. Whilst it is possible to conduct a ceremony outdoors, normally an outdoor venue has to be within the grounds of approved premises.

In the event that these formalities are not complied with the marriage or civil partnership will not be legally recognised. This can lead to all sorts of problems and often people do not realise that they have fallen foul of the requirements until the relationship comes to an end, either at the point of separation or because one party predeceases the other. 

Recommendations for reform

The Law Commission has recommended a comprehensive reform of the existing law and below is a summary of the proposed changes:

  • A shift away from the regulation of buildings to the regulation of the officiant responsible for conducting the ceremony. This is by far the biggest change proposed by the Law Commission. At present, the legality of the ceremony centres around the wedding location but moving forward all weddings would be overseen by an authorised officiant who would have legal responsibility for the wedding.
  • Universal laws would be introduced for all weddings, with very few exceptions. At the moment the law is inconsistent and different rules apply to Anglican, Jewish, Quaker and other religious weddings. Many believe that, if implemented, the new proposals would create a fairer, more consistent set of rules.
  • A greater appreciation of different beliefs and more flexibility with regard to the ceremony itself. There will be greater choice with the content of the ceremony, thus allowing individuals to have a ceremony which reflects their values and beliefs. It will no longer have to include “prescribed words” and couples who opt for a civil ceremony will be able to have religious songs, readings and hymns, provided that the ceremony is still identifiable as a civil ceremony.
  • A greater choice of wedding venue. The proposals provide for religious ceremonies to take place in venues other than places of worship, and couples will be permitted to marry in an outdoor venue which is not connected with a building. This means that couples will be able to tie the knot in a number of unusual and unique locations, such as forests, beaches, and even local parks. It will also mean that couples will be able to consider more affordable venues such as private homes and village halls. This has to be viewed as a positive change, when one considers the wedding backlog in the wake of COVID-19 restrictions and the ongoing cost of living crisis.
  • Increased clarity with regard to the consequences of not complying with the required formalities. New offences will be introduced criminalising officiants who mislead anyone to think that they are legally married when that is not the case.
  • A modern and more convenient system. Couples will be able to give notice of their forthcoming wedding on-line, and will also be able to choose the registration district where they will be interviewed by a registration officer.

Overall, the Law Commission hopes that the proposed reforms will simplify the law and offer couples greater freedom, whilst at the same time preserving the dignity of weddings, retaining important safeguards, and respecting the longstanding practices of religious groups.  

It is now for the Government to review and consider the recommendations in the Law Commission’s report and an interim response is awaited.

For guidance or support on any issues relating to any of the topics discussed, contact our family law solicitors.

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