The Law of Marriage is Outdated


As family lawyers we spend our time dealing with the law when a marriage breaks down. We don’t often have to consider the legal position at the time of the marriage itself. However, there have been a number of recent cases where courts have had to determine whether a marriage is actually valid.


The Law Commission has recently published a paper “Getting Married” in which it summarises that the current marriage law is outdated as it does not cater adequately for the many faiths and non-religious beliefs that make up today’s society.


The rules on marriage are surprisingly complex and there are still a significant number of difficulties, for example:


The place of the marriage

  • a religious marriage must be in a registered place of worship. For civil marriages, the Marriage Act 1994 introduced the concept of “approved premises” which has broadened the scope of venues and led to an increase in civil ceremonies but it is still not generally possible to marry outside or at home.

The type and content of ceremony

  • No religious content is allowed in a civil ceremony.
  • There are particular issues for non Anglican faith marriages. A religious marriage that does not comply with formal requirements will have no legal status without a separate civil ceremony.
  • Essentially a legally valid marriage has to be in either a civil format or a religious format. There is no format for other belief systems. So if you hold a belief that is not considered a religion, for example, if you are a humanist then you will not be able to contract a legally valid marriage with a format consistent with that belief It can therefore be difficult for couples with different faiths or beliefs to have the sort of ceremony that is meaningful to both of them.


What should I check?


It may seem overly cautious but rights of non spouses can be very different from spouses, and it can be devastating to find on bereavement or separation that your marriage is not valid. So check the legal requirements in advance.


  • What preliminaries are needed? The preliminaries for Anglican marriage are different from civil marriage. Check well in advance. There are time limits.
  • If you are having a civil ceremony other than in a Register Office you must make sure the venue is an “approved premises”
  • You need to make sure that the person marrying you is actually authorised to do so.
  • If you want to have a non Anglican marriage in accordance with yours or your partner’s religion or beliefs, you will need to have a civil ceremony first.


If you find that the law in England and Wales cannot give you the sort of ceremony that you want, you may have to consider going abroad, whether that be to Scotland (where the rules are different) or further afield.


If you do marry abroad, do make sure that your marriage complies with the legal requirements of that country or jurisdiction. Some countries require the intended bride and groom to provide formal statements confirming their current marital status and these may have to be prepared by and/or witnessed by a solicitor here. Check for each country as requirements vary significantly. You do not need to register your marriage on your return but to be recognised here, the marriage must be valid in the place you married. Finally, you should certainly keep your marriage certificate carefully as obtaining copies from Embassies or other foreign sources can be tricky and costly. It may also be an idea to get a certified English translation of the marriage certificate done as soon as possible and keep this with the original certificate.



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