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Government says “not the right time” for review of marriage law

Law Commission will not look at the laws around marriage at this time

The Government has written to the Law Commission to say that it is not the right time for a full review of marriage law, but has not ruled out further work in the future.

In December 2015 a scoping report from the Law Commission identified issues with the way marriages were conducted in England and Wales. It highlighted potential problems with how marriages are registered, what paperwork a couple must complete before their wedding takes place, who can conduct marriages, and where they can take place.

The Justice Minister Dominic Raab has said in a letter – whilst acknowledging marriage as "one of our most important institutions" – that any opportunities for primary legislation will be focused on protecting the most vulnerable children and families at this time.

Law Commissioner Professor Nick Hopkins said:

"Getting married can be one of the best days in someone's life. But our Victorian laws haven't kept pace with the modern world.  Reform has the potential to allow all couples to marry in a way that's meaningful to them.

"We understand parliamentary time is precious at the moment but don't believe that the need for reform will go away. We hope we can continue our work in this area in the future, and welcome the Minister's promise to keep the situation under review."

The main law which governs marriage is from 1836 and, says the Law Commission, has failed to keep pace with modern Britain.

How and where marriages can take place is tightly regulated. At present, couples have to make a choice between a religious or a civil ceremony. If a couple does not comply with the legal requirements, which may happen with some religious ceremonies, their marriage may not be legally recognised. The Commission has found that people often discover their lack of legal status only at the time of relationship breakdown.

This means the parties have:

Researchers have highlighted that this might be happening prevalently in British Muslim communities, but it is an issue that other religious and belief communities may also be facing.

Due to the restrictions the law imposes, many couples  – in particular those who want to marry according to a non-religious belief, for example, humanism, or in a ceremony incorporating elements from different beliefs – may end up having two ceremonies to satisfy both the law and their own wishes: one that the law regards as binding and another belief-based ceremony that couples think of as their "true" marriage ceremony. In order to avoid having to have two ceremonies, many people would like the opportunity to marry legally somewhere more personal or meaningful to them, including outdoors. And to tailor the ceremony to reflect their wishes and beliefs.

Due to its protocol, the Law Commission can only take forward work where there is a "serious intention to reform the law" by the government. As a result the Commission will not look at the laws around marriage at this time.

To read the Law Commission's scoping report, click here.