Want to get wed in a forest or a field? A makeover of marriage laws could be love at first sight | Nick Hopkins
Summer wedding season is in full flow, with guests descending on venues to witness thousands of couples coming together for their special day. It’s the first summer in two years when ceremonies haven’t been curtailed by the pandemic, so couples, rightly, have cause for celebration. But despite jubilant scenes, many tying the knot also know they will have had to make some serious compromises in order for their big day to go ahead.
And I don’t mean the usual wrangling over the guest list, choice of starter or flower arrangements, but rather more fundamental tradeoffs and sacrifices concerning the ceremony itself.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that for many couples wedding laws are simply no longer fit for purpose. Outdated, restrictive and complex regulations mean many getting married in England and Wales will have been denied a legally recognised wedding ceremony that is meaningful to them.
Parts of our ancient wedding laws date back to the 1830s, so it’s no wonder they fail to reflect the needs of society today. Their incremental evolution since then has left us with rules that are not only outdated, but highly complex and difficult to navigate, with different belief systems bound by a host of different restrictions.
Couples must choose between either a religious marriage (with Anglican, Quaker, Jewish and other religious weddings all subject to individual requirements) or a civil marriage, with no option for legal ceremonies reflecting other beliefs. For some, such as Muslim or Hindu couples, an additional, civil wedding may be needed for their marriage to be legally recognised. Some may not take this step, leaving them without the legal rights that marriage brings.
Current law also means that couples face a highly restrictive choice of locations, and further unnecessary rules dictating the content of their ceremonies. It is hard to justify such a confusing and out-of-date system. That is why the Law Commission, the independent body of which I am a commissioner, is proposing a fundamental overhaul of wedding laws; a new scheme that meets the needs and beliefs of couples today, and supports and celebrates marriage.
At the heart of our approach is shifting regulation away from the building where a wedding can take place towards the officiant who would oversee the ceremony. This change would open up a wealth of venue possibilities, giving couples the freedom to marry in places such as the beach, their local village hall or their home. Under our system, nature-loving couples would, for example, have the option of holding a ceremony in a forest, on a hilltop or in an orchard. For those more comfortable at sea, a cruise-ship wedding would get the green light.
The new freedoms would also allow more choice over the songs, rituals and vows at ceremonies, allowing content that reflects a couple’s relationship and personal beliefs.
But these options don’t just mean more personalisation – they also mean saving money. With financial pressures hitting hard, the choice of having simpler, cheaper weddings will help couples to dramatically drive down costs.
Our reforms would not result in unfettered freedoms; weddings would have to be dignified and safe, all approved by the officiant. Publicity and legal safeguards would be kept or enhanced to ensure that there is a lower risk of sham, forced or predatory marriages.
Underpinning the reforms is the idea that the same laws would largely apply to everyone. This would mean untangling the hodgepodge of conflicting laws across different beliefs, and replacing them with universal rules for all. This wouldn’t undermine religious marriages, and couples would still be free to decide the location and content of their ceremonies.
The traditional Anglican church wedding preceded by banns will continue as usual, for example. But there will be more freedom for couples and religions who are not served by the current law to have wedding ceremonies that honour their beliefs. Our changes will also create a path to making non-religious belief ceremonies, such as humanist weddings legally recognised – if permitted by the government.
By getting rid of unnecessary barriers and anomalies our reforms would ultimately bring England and Wales in line with our close neighbours, including Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as those farther afield such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
Couples should have the freedom to choose where and how they get married, with a ceremony that’s meaningful to them. We need a new set of laws that delivers this. It’s time to make weddings fit for the 21st century.
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