The Marriage Act of 1949 is the primary law governing marriage in the United Kingdom. The provisions of the statute date back to 1836, and according to the Law Commission, the statute has ‘failed to keep pace with modern life’. Currently, the statute has lots of different rules, most of which are outdated, restrictive, and non-inclusive of religious beliefs other than Christianity. As a result, on the 3rd September 2020, the Law Commission released a consultation paper aimed at addressing these issues and with the hope of modernising the Marriage Act of 1949.
The need for reformation
One of the main issues with the Act is its failure to accommodate marriages conducted by couples belonging to a religion other than Christianity. At the time that the statute was formed, marriages outside of a church were ‘unthinkable for the majority of the population’. However, in modern society couples want the option of getting married in a venue other than the church. Currently, with few exceptions, all couples must have their wedding either in a place of worship or licenced secular venue, and cannot marry outdoors or even in the garden of a licenced venue.
Additionally, couples having an Anglican wedding can give notice of their wedding to a church, whereas all other couples must register at the Register Office. This exception is discriminatory as it means that those couples who choose to not have an Anglican wedding do not have the choice to register their wedding at their place of worship or their chosen non-religious venue, resulting in those couples often having to conduct two wedding ceremonies. If a couple does not comply with these requirements, their marriage may not be legally recognised and consequently, the parties have no legal protection or status. This issue was disputed in the case of R (Harrison and others) v Secretary of State for Justice  EWHC 2096 in which the claimants sought judicial review of the failure to extend legal recognition of marriage to humanist wedding ceremonies.
The Law Commission has proposed for reforms in the following areas: the ceremony content, the location of the wedding, the registration of the marriage and the requirements for who must be in attendance.
The proposals are very detailed and include:
- Provisions for allowing weddings to take place anywhere, including inside private homes and outdoor spaces.
- Creation of an electronic marriage registration system, in which parties can upload personal documents online as well as see the list for all upcoming weddings online.
- Granting the parties to the marriage discretion in regard to the ceremony content.
Additionally, the reformation of marriage laws is arguably most appropriate now due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although in recent months’ weddings have been allowed to take place with reduced numbers, the requirements for the physical presence of the couple and the requirements for giving notice have meant that many couples have been unable to get married. With the pandemic ongoing, the need for reform, to many, is now seen as imperative.
The Law Commission wants the laws for getting married to be simpler, fairer, and more equal. The Commission believes that people should be allowed to have the freedom to include wedding promises or traditions into their ceremonies that are important to them.
It is believed that these changes will be suited to the modern couple but will also set the precedent for future reforms in other aspects of family law.