Update on the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill

The Bill and Explanatory Notes have now been published for this Private Members Bill, which receives its Second Reading in the Commons on Friday.

The Bill takes a different approach to previous versions (which I described in a previous blog post).

The Bill would amend the Marriage Act 1949 and the Civil Partnership Act 2004 to raise the minimum age at which people can enter into a marriage or civil partnership in England and Wales to 18.

However, in terms of criminal offences, the Bill would now add a new offence to the existing offence of forced marriage found in section 121 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. Section 2A would read:

A person commits an offence under the law of England and Wales if he or she carries out any conduct for the purpose of causing a child to enter into a marriage before the child’s eighteenth birthday (whether or not the conduct amounts to violence, threats or any other form of coercion).

Other provisions in the 2014 Act are amended so that, like the law on forced marriage, the conduct does not need to be directed at the child and so that it is an offence to practice any form of deception with the intention of causing another person to leave the UK to carry out a child marriage.

Importantly, section 121(4) will also apply to this new offence. This states that ‘“marriage” means any religious or civil ceremony of marriage (whether or not legally binding)’. This means that causing a child unregistered marriage will be offence.

This is a vital provision given that many child marriages are likely to be unregistered marriages and also because any attempt to ban child marriage that only covered marriages legally recognised under the Marriage Act would simply have the effect of increasing the number of unregistered child marriages.

This legislation underscores how important it is not to ignore unregistered marriages and it is to be hoped that the forthcoming final report of the Law Commission into weddings law will prompt full reform of our outdated and discriminatory law on marriage.

However, this Bill is a welcome and necessary first step and deserves wide support.

The Department of Finance in Northern Ireland has also just published a consultation paper on limited marriage law reform and one of the two changes that discusses is increasing the minimum age for marriage. I will discuss that consultation in a separate blog post.

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