Outdated weddings laws to be overhauled under new reforms

The Law Commission of England and Wales has today outlined recommendations to reform weddings law, proposing a fairer system that gives couples more choice over where and how their wedding takes place.

The Commission was asked by the Government to review the law on weddings, following concerns that it is not working for many couples.

Under current law, the rules and regulations governing weddings are confusing, out-of-date and restrictive. Needless regulation prevents many couples from marrying in a place that is meaningful to them, or having a ceremony reflecting their own wishes and beliefs.

The Commission recommends a new system that would focus regulation on the marriage officiant responsible for the ceremony, rather than on the building where the wedding can take place.

This reform would open up a wide range of locations for couples to get married. Permitted venues would include gardens, beaches, forests, parks, village halls and cruise ships.

This follows increasing public demand for new types of simpler, more affordable and personal options, particularly as household finances come under pressure and the “Covid backlog” of weddings persists.

The changes would also allow for more personalised content, such as the vows, rituals and songs chosen.

The recommendations would ensure fairer treatment for all beliefs, removing the anomalies of the current system, where different religions are bound by a multitude of different rules. This includes creating a path to legalising non-religious belief ceremonies, such as Humanist weddings, in England and Wales, if permitted by Government.

The reforms would also allow the option for civil weddings to be conducted by independent officiants, as well as registrars, if accepted by Government – further expanding choice and availability.

While offering greater freedoms to couples, the reforms are designed to preserve the dignity of weddings, to retain important safeguards, and to protect the longstanding practices and rules of religious groups.

The Commission’s recommendations represent a comprehensive overhaul to current weddings law, the key parts of which date back to 1836 or even earlier. Many of the changes would bring England and Wales in line with laws in other places including those nearby in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Ireland, and Jersey, and further afield such as in New Zealand, Canada and Australia.

Commenting on the weddings law reforms for Government, Professor Nick Hopkins, Family Law Commissioner at the Law Commission, said:

“The current law on weddings is not working for many couples. Needless restrictions and outdated regulations mean that thousands each year are denied having a wedding that is meaningful to them.

“Our reforms for Government are designed to protect the established practices and dignity of weddings, while offering couples more choice on where and how they marry.

“There is widespread precedent for our reforms around the world. By giving couples more control over their weddings and ensuring greater parity for all beliefs, the law can support those who want to get married, rather than putting unnecessary barriers in the way.”

The need for weddings reform: the rules and regulations governing weddings are outdated and restrictive

  • Unfair and inconsistent: Couples must currently choose between either a civil or a religious ceremony, with no option for a ceremony reflecting other beliefs. Inconsistent laws mean that Anglican, Jewish, Quaker and other religions each have a different set of rules.
  • Narrow venue choices: Most couples must have their weddings in a registered building – confined to either a place of worship or a licensed secular venue.
  • Needless complexities: The process of getting married is complicated, inefficient and unfair to some beliefs, including religions that do not conduct weddings in a place of worship. This can lead to couples being put off in the first place, or failing to comply with requirements, meaning their marriage is not legally recognised.

The Law Commission’s new reforms to improve weddings law in England and Wales

  • Regulation of the officiant, not the location: Every wedding would be overseen by an authorised officiant, who would have legal responsibility for the wedding. This marks a significant shift, with the legality of weddings currently centred around the location. Many weddings today, such as religious weddings, will already have person playing a similar role to that of an officiant (e.g., for the Anglian church, a member of the clergy). If permitted by Government, independent officiants will be able to conduct civil weddings.
  • Universal rules for all weddings: with very few exceptions, the same rules would apply to all weddings, meaning the different laws for different religious groups and civil weddings would no longer persist.
  • Respecting beliefs and offering greater choice: Couples will have more choice over where their wedding can take place and over the content of their ceremony. Couples getting married will be able to have weddings in smaller and cheaper venues, more areas outside than the law currently permits, and in other places that are important to them. If permitted by Government, non-religious belief organisations (such as Humanists) would be able to conduct weddings on the same basis as religious organisations.
  • Preserving dignity and religious practices and rules: The framework ensures that the dignity of weddings is upheld, and religious groups will be able to apply their own rules. Religions and non-religious belief organisations will have the final say are which venues are appropriate for them.
  • Convenience: Couples will be able to give notice of their intended wedding online, and to choose the registration district where they are then interviewed by a registration officer.
  • Safeguards: the reforms enhance protections against forced and predatory marriage, and maintain the protection against sham marriages.

Visit the project page and read the report here.