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Outdoor civil weddings and partnership ceremonies – and what is the difference between the two?

With ceremonies now permitted to take place outdoors, we consider the difference between same sex marriages and civil partnerships.

From 1 July 2021 until April 2022, civil weddings and partnership ceremonies will be able to take place outdoors in England and Wales. Previously, the ceremony itself had to take place in an approved room or “permanent structure” within an approved premises such as a hotel. 

The new laws will allow couples greater flexibility with regard to how they host and celebrate their big day. They will be able to opt to conduct the ceremony in a variety of different spaces, including a private garden, park or even a cruise ship. It is important to note however that the changes will only apply to locations already approved to hold civil weddings and partnership registrations. As a consequence, the new rules will not result in an increase in the number of venues available to couples this summer. 

In many ways the introduction of this new law could not come at a better time. We remain in the midst of a pandemic and as a consequence there is an increased demand for outdoor events, given ongoing public health concerns and the continuing need to socially distance. It will also mean that those who were forced to cancel or postpone their big day due to the restrictions imposed on the number of guests may now be able to revive their plans and get their ceremony back on the agenda.

Further changes may be afoot as the Law Commission is due to propose further reforms later this year which will then be given careful consideration by the Government. One such reform may be to allow couples to tie the knot remotely in a national emergency. The Commission will also provide recommendations as to whether the change in respect of the laws governing outdoor ceremonies ought to be made permanent.

The changes are set to benefit approximately 75% of weddings in England and Wales which are not religious and take place on approved premises. Same sex couples are also anticipated to benefit from the changes as those forming a civil partnership cannot currently have a religious ceremony and whilst same sex couples can get married in a religious building, it has to be registered specifically for the marriage of same sex couples. It is therefore no surprise that the vast majority of same sex couples opt for a civil ceremony. 

Confusion continues to surround the difference between same sex marriages and civil partnerships.  Fundamentally, from a legal perspective, no major differences between the two exist. There are however some subtle differences which are summarised in the table below:



Civil partnership

How to describe the relationship

Married couples cannot call themselves ‘civil partners’ for legal purposes.

Civil partners cannot call themselves ‘married’ for legal purposes.

How to enter into either civil partnership or marriage

Marriages are solemnized by saying a prescribed form of words.

Civil partnerships are registered by signing the civil partnership document, with no words required to be spoken.

Marriages can be conducted through a civil ceremony, or a religious ceremony (subject to provisos).

The formation of a civil partnership is an entirely civil event. Civil partners can choose to add a ceremony (religious or not) to follow the formation of their civil partnership.

Notice of marriage is given by each party in the registration district in which they have lived for the previous 7 days.

Notice of civil partnership is given by each partner anywhere within the local authority in which they have lived for the previous 7 days.

The details of marriages are recorded in an electronic register.

The details of civil partnerships are recorded in an electronic register.


Marriage certificates include include the names of both parents of the parties.

Civil partnership certificates include the names of both parents of the parties.

Divorce / Dissolution

Also see below*

Marriage is ended by divorce, by obtaining a decree absolute.

Civil partnerships are ended by a dissolution order.

*There are also some variations of grounds to either annul or divorce the other party. A family lawyer can explain the differences, which relate to the reason given to the court for either the annulment or the divorce. There may also be some differences in State Pension provision. 

Contact our family law solicitors for free 30 minute consultation on any family law matter.

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