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Law Commission suggests sweeping marriage reforms

03 September 2020

Couples should be offered greater choice of where they marry, it says

istock

COUPLES should be offered greater choice of where they marry, including locations outdoors or in their own home, the Law Commission has proposed.

People would also have more freedom to decide the form that the ceremony takes, even marrying remotely via video conferencing platforms such as Zoom in the event of a future pandemic. In addition, non-religious organisations such as Humanists and independent celebrants would be able to conduct legally binding weddings. And religious content could be included in ceremonies other than religious buildings.

A Church of England spokesperson said on Thursday: “We will study these proposals in more detail, and will respond to the consultation in due course.

“Our research shows that being married in a place that has meaning is still important to couples and their families. The moments of waiting to walk down the aisle, standing at the steps, exchanging timeless vows that can only be said in a church, and turning to walk out of the church as a newly married couple, are cherished.”

The Law Commission is a statutory independent body with the task of reviewing the law in England and Wales. It was asked in July last year by the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, to review the rules surrounding marriage (News, 5 July 2019).

It says that its proposals will bring the process into the 21st century, and allow the law to recognise the diverse ways that couples in England and Wales would like to celebrate their weddings these days.

It will consult relevant bodies until 3 December to help develop recommendations to the Government, which it hopes to publish in the second half of next year.

The Commission said that the proposed new rules “would work better for the wide range of groups wanting to conduct weddings, and would reduce the cost of getting married. 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to get married during the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated, the laws governing how and where couples can marry are outdated and unnecessarily restrictive.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.”

It says that current legislation, which dates back to 1836, is not fit for purpose, and no longer meets many couples’ needs.

Under current rules, couples must choose between a civil or a religious ceremony, with no option for a ceremony reflecting other beliefs. To get married legally, 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,” the Commission says. “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.”

Weddings in Scotland are not governed by location restrictions, which has allowed couples to marry in isolated glens, on uninhabited islands, and in ancient castles. Marriages can be conducted by any “authorised celebrants”, not necessarily a minister of religion or a registrar.

In Northern Ireland, where same-sex religious marriages became lawful on Tuesday, there is no restriction on the location of a religious marriage. Civil marriages, however, can take place only in approved venues.

The Family Law Commissioner at the Law Commission, Professor Nick Hopkins, said: “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.”

Jayne Ozanne, a member of the General Synod and the government’s LGBT Advisory Panel, posted on Twitter: “This is incredibly welcome news — a way of side-stepping obstacles so that same-sex couples can get married in a place they choose (sadly not a church yet) with a religious ceremony. I may be wrong, but this seems to put people not outdated laws first.”

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