UK marriage law has been outdated for many years. It has lagged behind many other countries in the world that embraced the idea of giving couples choice about how and where they choose to get married to reflect individual circumstances and beliefs.
The long-awaited Law Commission review was published on 19 July 2022. Its proposals (if adopted and passed into law) will herald a much-needed overhaul of the preliminary legal requirements, the types of ceremony and officiants who can conduct it, and the locations where a marriage can take place.
Currently the only legal marriages are conducted by a religious minister in church, or are civil marriages conducted by a Registrar either at a Registry office, or a venue licensed for a civil marriage.
The Law Commission has suggested that if the government permits, the pool of legal marriage officiants could be expanded to include belief officiants (such as Humanists) and independent civil celebrants. Alongside Registrars the latter would be part of a class of “civil officiants”.
The role of an independent officiant would be regulated in two respects – proof of good standing, and training in the legal responsibilities by the General Register Office. So, wedding celebrancy would become a regulated profession.
Under the auspices of the Law Commission’s recommendations every wedding and every officiant will have specific legal obligations so that there are universal laws for all weddings.
The future will be about regulating the officiant not the location of the ceremony. So, it will be possible to have ceremonies at outside locations, at local venues, or at home. [The appointed officiant will be responsible for approving the proposed location.] Marriages at sea in international waters will be permitted, provided the ship is UK registered.
Wherever a marriage takes place and whoever officiates there will be 3 overriding duties:
1. The ensure the parties freely express consent to marry each other.
2. To ensure the other requirements are met, such as the presence of 2 witnesses.
3. To ensure the Schedule or Marriage Document is signed and that the ceremony upholds the dignity and significance of marriage.
Undoubtedly the Law Commission’s recommendations are very welcome for those who want to get married. They do a vast amount to recognise that couples want much enhanced choice about the where and how they have their legal wedding.
Independent celebrants would love to be able to conduct wedding ceremonies that have standing as a legal marriage. But it is important to recognise that the government would need to take positive steps to legislate so that independent celebrants can become registered as independent officiants.
The Government has 6 months to give an interim response to the Law Commission’s Report, and up to a year to give a full response. Then the process for final reforms to be made law could take a prolonged period.
So, the future for a New Weddings Law potentially looks bright but the timing and the final shape of reform remains uncertain.