The Law Commission has proposed sweeping reforms to modernise laws governing wedding formalities.

It wants government to simplify the process and offer couples greater choice about where, how and by whom they are wed.

Following a tumultuous year for the wedding industry, the proposals will no doubt be welcomed by prospective brides and grooms, registrars, celebrants and venues alike.

The main law governing the formalities of marriage has not been updated since the 1940s.

Commenting on the Law Commission’s review, Law Society president, David Greene, said: “This area of law has long been due an overhaul and the Law Commission’s review of marriage offers a much-needed opportunity to bring our marriage laws into the 21st century.”

He added: “As new restrictions on weddings have emerged during the Covid-19 pandemic… many couples are giving new thought to marriage and the rules which govern how and where they wed.”

At present, couples having an Anglican wedding may give notice to the church, with all other couples being required to give notice at their local register office.

In terms of venue, couples are limited to a place of worship or other licensed secular venues, and very few venues are licensed to conduct outdoor weddings.

Couples must also choose between a religious or civil ceremony, and if the relevant legal requirements are not complied with, the marriage may not be legally binding; a fact that may only be discovered at the point the relationship breaks down.

The Law Commission’s consultation will consider what legal preliminaries should be required before a wedding, where weddings may take place and who should be allowed to conduct them.

It also proposed making weddings simpler by allowing:  

  • Couples to give notice online or by post.
  • Weddings to take place in a wider variety of venues, such as in private homes or on beaches; in parks or on military sites. 
  • Greater flexibility over the ceremony, permitting a variety of religious and non-religious ceremonies.
  • Non-religious belief organisations or independent celebrants to conduct weddings.

Greene welcomed the proposal to allow couples to give notice online but cautioned that in person requirements should remain in certain circumstances, “…so appropriate checks can be carried out where there are any concerns about fraud, duress or forced marriage cases”.

He commented on the pervasive legal myth of the ‘common law’ marriage: “We would also urge the Commission as part of its review to consider public legal education on the ‘common law’ marriage myth and what constitutes a legally valid union.

“According to a 2018 survey on British attitudes towards ‘common law’ marriage commissioned by the University of Exeter and carried out by the National Centre for Social Research, 46 per cent of people in England and Wales believe in ‘common law’ marriage.”

Many couples mistakenly believe that if they live together for an extended period time, they have certain rights in relation to property or other assets, but this is not the case.

The belief in ‘common law’ marriage can leave individuals legally and financially vulnerable when it comes to the division of finances, debt and property after a relationship breakdown or the death of a partner.

Instead, cohabiting couples should seek to make other arrangements in relation to their finances to protect themselves.

The Law Commission’s final policy will be published in a report with recommendations for Government in the second half of 2021.

 

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