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Leading couples and communities towards legally binding wedding ceremonies 

A bench surrounded by flowers and lights
Photograph of Rajnaara Akhtar

Dr Rajnaara Akhtar

Assistant Professor, School of Law

Dr Rajnaara Akhtar is a socio-legal researcher with a focus on family law. In particular, her research centres on marriage formalities and legal treatment of non-legally binding religious-only marriages. Her research into such marriages looks at transitional relationship norms, normative influences, legal consequences and autonomy. She has conducted extensive empirical fieldwork in this area in the UK, Qatar and Australia. Dr Akhtar is currently researching non-legally binding weddings in England and Wales, and women's marriage and divorce experiences in Qatar.

She has recently completed a collaborative research project funded by the Nuffield Foundation for which she was the Primary Investigator, exploring why marriage ceremonies occur outside of the legal framework for weddings in England and Wales. A second grant funded project currently underway, funded by the Doha International Family Institute, explores the experiences of women in Qatar engaging with the law and legal infrastructure relating to marriage and divorce.

What challenges has this project addressed?

In 2020, the Law Commission published a set of provisional proposals for reform of the law governing weddings, proposing a fairer system that gives couples more choice over where and how their wedding takes place. A Nuffield Foundation funded study into non-legally binding weddings in 2020/2021 enabled data to be gathered on such wedding ceremonies across a range of communities in England and Wales, to contribute to the Law Commission’s consultation process and review of the law. 
A University of Warwick project, funded by the Policy Support Fund and led by Dr Rajnaara Akhtar, enabled engagement with key stakeholders to maximise the policy impact of the findings from the previous research. Stakeholders included the Law Commission, the Ministry of Justice, the General Register Office and the Local Registration Services Association. The research detailed the experiences of participants who had non-legally binding weddings, the role of those who perform them, and the potential impact of the Law Commission’s proposals for reform. These findings were presented to Parliamentarians to aid MPs’ understanding of how couples are marrying in England and Wales and to demonstrate why the law needs to change and meet the needs of a modern multi-cultural society.   

How was this achieved?

Research findings were disseminated through targeted meetings with stakeholders including the Law Commission, the Ministry of Justice, Members of Parliament, Registrars, and others. For the Law Commission, the findings were disseminated more broadly through a full reportLink opens in a new window.   

During the briefings with the Law Commission, the team were able to detail the experiences of the research participants and discuss the potential impact of specific recommendations. As intended, the research findings of the project were cited in the Law Commission’s final report Celebrating Marriage: A New Weddings Law, July 2022 and shaped recommendations made. Furthermore, due to a government policy focus on Muslim religious-only marriages, briefings with members of the Ministry of Justice were used to present the broader narrative on non-legally binding weddings and the spectrum of communities they impact upon, while also focussing on Muslim marriages.    

Meetings with Registrars relayed findings focussing on the experiences of couples who had a non-legally binding marriage and who attempted to give notice of intention to marry and undertake a civil ceremony.    

Several resources were created for a lay audience to raise awareness of the legal outcomes of non-legally binding weddings. A three-minute animated videoLink opens in a new window was produced and is being shared through grass roots organisations. An infographic was produced as a downloadable resource for those conducting non-legally binding weddings.    

Finally, a launch event took place for Parliamentarians where the research team explained the impact of the legal formalities on wedding choices. With the Law Commission’s final reform recommendations now available, the Research Team expect to continue engagement with stakeholders.     

Positioning in a regional and national context

The research into weddings has the potential to impact on law reform on a national scale should the government choose to implement the reforms proposed by the Law Commission.