I completely agree that the issue of unregistered religious marriage needs tackling and that our law on marriage is antiquated and so in need for reform. But it is important that the current law is understood correctly – especially since misunderstandings are likely to result in more unregistered marriages and the erroneous assumption that such marriages result in legal rights.
There seems to be some misunderstandings about the current law. For instance, a recent blog on the Law Society website by the Register our Marriage campaign claims that the Marriage Act 1949 ‘provides that only three faiths have to register their marriages’ (Anglicans, Jews and Quakers). It is not clear what is meant by this. The reality is that the Act makes particular provision for these faiths. All other faiths can conduct lawful marriages provided that their buildings are registered and if there is a registrar or authorised person present.
The Marriage Act 1949 differentiates between marriages solemnised according to the rites of the Church of England / Church in Wales (dealt with in Part II of the Act) and marriages otherwise solemnised (dealt with in Part III). This second category includes opposite sex marriages ‘according to the usages of the Society of Friends’ and a ‘marriage between a man and a woman professing the Jewish religion according to the usages of the Jews’ (section 26). It also includes opposite sex marriages in a place of worship registered as a place of worship under the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855 and section 41 of the Marriage Act 1949. However, such places of worship need not only be registered but also if there is no registrar present then an authorised person needs to be appointed under section 43.
So, there’s no legal ‘gap’ in that all faith communities can under the current law ensure that their marriages are lawful if certain requirements are met. There is a question of whether the way those requirement are currently defined effectively excludes certain faiths and practice.
Reform is definitely needed. Unregistered marriages and the assumption that they lead to legal rights is a pressing issue. But until reform comes it is vital that the current law is understood. And this is also necessary in advocating reform.