Marriage Law Reform in Northern Ireland

Law and Religion UK have reported that, following the consultation earlier this year, changes to marriage law in Northern Ireland are being planned:

As Law and Religion UK notes, work is beginning on preparing legislation because ‘it will only be possible to legislate once there is a functioning Assembly and Executive’.

The Department of Finance intends to increase the age of marriage / civil partnerships to 18. This follows recent legislation to the same effect in England and Wales. On which, see this blog post by my Cardiff Law School colleague Dr Kathy Griffiths and I:

The Department also intends to prepare to recognise belief marriage. This is something that the Law Commission in England and Wales will no doubt discuss as part of its final report on wedding law, which we now know is due to be published on 19 July.

Recognising belief marriages raises the
the question of how belief is to be defined and whether it includes independent celebrants. The statement from the Minister of Finance suggests that it might not:

The Statement defines belief marriage as ‘marriage ceremonies for people who subscribe to non-religious belief systems such as humanism’ and comments that:

‘Four responses were received from independent wedding celebrant businesses and one from a body that represents the interests of independent celebrants. Independent celebrants are commercial businesses (often sole traders) that provide, for a fee, wedding ceremonies which are not legally binding, i.e. that are quite literally ceremonial. The current marriage law prohibits the provision of legally binding marriage for profit. Independent celebrants and the bodies that represent them would like the law to change to enable them to provide legally binding marriages.’

It further stated:

‘Consultation responses were, as noted, less clear cut with regard to independent celebrants and marriage for profit. Some of the potential benefits attributed to independent celebrants—their ability to tailor a ceremony to the idiosyncratic needs the couple, the wider choice of venue—might be achieved by a further examination of the current regulations governing civil marriage to allow for greater choice of venue and more flexibility regarding the content of the ceremony. I have asked my officials to give this issue further consideration alongside legislative reform. With regard to the provision of marriage for profit, responses indicated some sympathy for independent celebrants but at the same time didn’t regard a change to the law on profiting from marriage as a priority. This is an issue that can be returned to.’

The language here is of interest – surely all who solemnise marriage make a profit? Plus, it does not seem to recognise the role that independent celebrants provide in terms of interfaith marriages and beliefs that are not represented by a particular religious or belief system.

For further discussion of the need to recognise belief marriages and discussion of how the law could be framed, see my book on Religion and Marriage Law: The Need for Reform (Bristol University Press, 2021): https://bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/religion-and-marriage-law

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