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Marriage: Changes in the law

Under the Age of Marriage Act 1929, the minimum age of marriage was 16, if parental permission was given.

On Monday 27 February 2023 this is changing to only allow those aged 18 or over to obtain a legally valid marriage or civil partnership. The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022 received Royal Assent in April 2022.

Why has it been changed?

The law rolled through parliament last year to try and prevent those under 18 being forced into marriage, and subject to controlling and coercive behaviour throughout the process.

The legislation allowing children under 18, but over 16, to marry with parental consent was being exploited by those wishing for their daughters to marry young. As a result, young women were being coerced into marrying. The change is implemented with the hope of increasing the number of girls remaining in education after 16.

In an aim to improve opportunities and the futures of those who would otherwise be subject to forced marriage, the new law imposes criminal consequences faced by adults, including all those with parental responsibility, who try to impose forced marriage upon those children (for the purposes of The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022, a child is a person under 18).

Under the new law, if a child is forced into marriage, the adults who facilitate the marriage could face up to seven years in jail and a fine. The penalty extends to any adult who attempts to take a child out of the country to carry out the marriage. There is no longer a need to show coercion was used to force the child into marriage.

Conservative MP Pauline Latham explained the change in law would:

“Transform the life chances of many girls”

The change in law only applies to couples in England and Wales. In Scotland, the minimum age of marriage continues to be 16 and parental consent is not necessary. In Northern Ireland, the minimum age is also 16 but parental consent is necessary until the parties are 18.

Does the law affect those who have already married?

The new law will not have a retrospective effect, so all those who have already been married whilst under the age of 18 will remain in legally binding marriages.

Hence, there are no legal consequences for those who previously coerced young women to enter into a marriage before they turned 18.

The future of marriage laws

The legal age of marriage may not be the only element of marriage that changes.

The Law Society released a report last year which reflects upon the current marriage laws in the United Kingdom, recognising many marriage laws have remained unchanged since the 1940s.

The proposals seek to change the laws around location, allowing couples to have a legally binding marriage in various types of buildings and outdoor spaces. Many locations which previously have been ruled out for marriage locations, like a beach, could become a viable option for couples.

The officiant would be regulated as opposed to the location. The officiant would be authorised to oversee the ceremony, taking on the legal responsibility. Under the current law, the legality of the ceremony is based on the location, it has to be at a religious building or a licensed venue. This shift will broaden the options available for wedding locations. The changes should also widen the scope for the vows given or the rituals performed.

Professor Nick Hopkins, Family Law Commissioner at the Law Commission, explained:

“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.”

The proposed changes allow couples greater choice over their wedding day, modernising wedding traditions and allowing more affordable and personal weddings to go ahead. While traditional weddings can continue, couples may choose to go for a simpler wedding, more affordable, especially in light of the cost of living crisis.

If you have any queries regarding marriage laws, contact our leading Family Law solicitors now on 0330 822 3451 or request a call back. 

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