Some Initial Thoughts on the Law Commission’s Project on Weddings

It has been announced that the Law Commission is starting its review into how and where weddings can occur in England and Wales: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/first-ever-marriage-review-to-free-up-dream-wedding-venues

The terms of reference for the review have also been published: https://s3-eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/lawcom-prod-storage-11jsxou24uy7q/uploads/2019/07/Terms-of-reference-for-the-Law-Commission-review-of-weddings-FINAL.pdf

Here are my initial thoughts on the project. In short, I would have preferred more comprehensive reform of the law on adult relationships but there’s potential here for some much needed changes.

Background

In recent years, there have been a number of calls for reform, most notably a 2015 Scoping Report by the Law Commission on ‘Getting Married’: http://www.lawcom.gov.uk/app/uploads/2015/12/Getting_Married_scoping_paper.pdf

The Home Office also commissioned an Independent Review into the application of Sharia Law which reported in 2018 which found that ‘a significant number of Muslim couples fail to register their religious marriages’ and recommended new criminal offences:https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/678478/6.4152_HO_CPFG_Report_into_Sharia_Law_in_the_UK_WEB.pdf

The Government’s response and current position is to look into limited reform of the law of marriage and religious ceremonies: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2019-05-02/debates/201F2DB0-FCE5-412F-AAB8-83CAA66F308A/ShariaLawCourts

A Missed Opportunity?

The new Law Commission review is to be welcomed. Reform to ensure simplicity, consistency and choice is clearly overdue. The law is a hotchpotch and is no longer fit for purpose.

However, that hotchpotch nature means that the review runs the risk of being something of a missed opportunity.

Wider reform and consolidation of the law on adult relationships is required. This is just the latest in a line of ad hoc changes – surely there comes a point where there is a need to explore the whole artifice.

That said, even the narrow terms of the Review would allow it to do a lot of good.

Opportunities for Reform

It is welcome that the Review will look into how and who should register marriages. The terms of reference include looking at ‘what offences are necessary to underpin the system governing weddings’.

However, as I have argued in a recent blog, creating new criminal offences against celebrants to deal with the issue of unregistered religious marriages is likely to do more harm than good: https://www.familylaw.co.uk/news_and_comment/criminalising-imams-will-not-solve-the-problem-of-unregistered-marriages

A preferable approach that would mitigate the problem of religious unregistered marriages would be to revise the formalities relating to marriage – perhaps moving away from the current focus on registering buildings.

An article by Dr Sharon Thompson and I calls for this, alongside cohabitation rights: https://www.academia.edu/31119918/The_Sharia_Law_Debate_The_Missing_Family_Law_Context_2016_177_Law_and_Justice_181-192

Indeed, one of the reasons why reform is so necessary and ought not be problematic is that other jurisdictions in the UK and Ireland are already much more advanced than England and Wales.

It is therefore also great that the Review will be looking at how humanist / non-religious belief organisations can be incorporated into a new or revised scheme.

This is long overdue. The disparity across the UK and Ireland on this was looked at in a recent article by my colleagues Dr Sharon Thompson and Frank Cranmer:https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09649069.2019.1590910?journalCode=rjsf20

So, overall, although it is narrower than what is needed, the review is to be welcomed. In particular, it is to be hoped that the rules on formalities will be revamped and that a new scheme will not only mitigate the unregistered religious marriages issue but will also include humanist and similar organisations.

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