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Wedding Law Reform in England and Wales

Long overdue reform for weddings law in England and Wales

Many couples marry each year in ceremonies which reflect their faith, beliefs or wishes, but which are not recognised by the law. The Marriage Act 1949, based on laws dating back to 1836, governs how couples legally marry. These legal provisions are significantly out of date, restrictive and fail to respond to the diversity of modern society and the way in which many couples wish to marry.

Dr Rajnaara Akhtar led a project funded by the Nuffield Foundation exploring non-legally binding weddings and the need for law reform. She worked with leading family law expert and Law Commission consultant Prof Rebecca Probert from the University of Exeter, and Sharon Blake from Exeter Medical School.

The Challenge

A non-legally binding marriage does not afford couples family law protections. As a result, a wedding which is not legally recognised can give rise to adverse outcomes for the financially weaker party on relationship breakdown, as these ‘non-qualifying ceremonies’ do not attract financial resolution on divorce or automatic inheritance rights. Some couples nevertheless choose a non-legally binding ceremony only, but the majority of couples are compelled by the current law to undergo two wedding ceremonies (or more), one which is meaningful to them and reflects their faith, beliefs or wishes, and another which is legally recognised. This is cumbersome, costly and fails to acknowledge modern social realities.

Our Approach

The Law Commission began a consultation process in 2020 after making a series of recommendations for the reform of weddings law. The Issue of Muslim non-legally binding weddings was also raised as a policy issue for government in a 2019 report reviewing the role of Shariah Councils in the UK. Dr Akhtar and her team conducted a large-scale empirical study of those conducting non-legally binding weddings and those choosing to have them from a range of communities in England and Wales. A part of the study involved testing the likely impact of the Law Commission reform proposals and providing evidence of the need for reform. The findings included support for:

  • making it easier for couples to marry in a way that is meaningful to them

  • a new and less onerous officiant-based system of regulation to replace the current buildings-based regulation

  • less prescriptive wedding ceremonies enabling couples to legally marry in any ceremony they wished

  • no restrictions on where a couple can marry

  • reducing the cost of weddings by increasing choice

Our Impact

The study was cited extensively by the Law Commission in its final report ‘Celebrating Marriage: A New Weddings Law’ published in July 2022, indicating the impact of the project on the proposals for law reform in this area.

Three Reports were published as part of the study. Firstly, a Briefing Paper to the Law Commission which analysed the provisional proposals for reform made by the Law commission during its Consultation exercise. A further final project report and a paper focussing on the impact of Covid-19 on weddings were also published. Each of these outputs was cited by the Law Commission, evidencing the impact of the research in contributing to shaping the proposals for law reform in this area. It is now for government to respond to the proposals. If implemented, this would result in wholesale reform of the law of weddings finally modernising centuries old legal provisions.