Where to be (or not to be) wed?

21st February 2023

Originally published with ThoughtLeaders4 HNW Divorce Magazine.

The English legal system could be set for a significant shake-up to its laws surrounding where and how couples can be wed. For many, choosing the perfect wedding venue is a key part of their big day. Such choice is often centred around the style of venue, proximity to family and friends and, of course, the costs involved in it all, which can be extortionate. Some couples see marriage as a practical choice, but for most, it is an opportunity to celebrate their love, by hosting the picture-perfect ceremony in a place that is meaningful to them.

Many couples will be blind to the fact that their choice of wedding venue is currently governed by archaic rules that are increasingly unfit for the 21st century (the current legal framework is contained in the Marriage Act 1949, with its origins from the Clandestine Marriages Act 1753, and its fundamental structure from the Marriage Act 1836). Rules that were put in place at a time when family history, money and social standing played a significant role; much more so than the choices and wishes of the couple themselves.

On 19 July 2022, the Law Commission of England and Wales published its report which, if implemented in law, will give couples more choice over where and how their ceremony can take place. The Law Commission are recommending an officiant centric, rather than a building focused, approach which can be held behind closed doors out of respect to those individuals and religious groups who seek a private setting.

The ideal dream wedding venue will hopefully be able to become a reality for plenty of newlyweds without being shackled by several archaic legal restrictions.

Modernisation of the law

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, legally binding civil wedding ceremonies were permitted to take place in a registry office or approved premises, in an approved room or permanent structure, such as stately homes and hotels. The introduction of the restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic meant that many couples were unable to get legally married within the COVID-19 restrictions imposed at the time, without risking the health of their wedding party or being in breach of COVID-19 restrictions. The pandemic also caused significant strain on wedding providers, due to the compliance measures that were required.

In an attempt to reduce the risks of COVID-19 transmission and reduce the burdens placed on the wedding industry, the Marriages and Civil Partnerships (Approved Premises) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 (SI 2021 No 775) were introduced and took effect on 1st July 2021. The amendments were a much-needed modernisation to the ancient rules on choice of venue, many of which were based on beliefs dating back to the 19th century. Positively, it expanded the choice for couples on where they could hold their civil ceremony, allowing outdoor ceremonies in the grounds of approved premises. Although the temporary measures did not permit weddings to be held in any location, and the premises still had to meet the requirement for a wedding to be held with open doors to enable others to object to a marriage if required (despite the reality being that this is rarely utilised outside of TV dramas). The modernisation in 2021 was a positive step forward, however, it did not extend to religious ceremonies, and it was only a temporary modernisation to the law, originally set to expire on 5 April 2022.

Where to be wed today?

Currently, couples continue to be faced with a complex set of rules when choosing where and how to be wed. A further statutory instrument similar to the temporary measures and put in place during the pandemic has been implemented: the Marriages and Civil Partnerships (Approved Premises) (Amendment) Regulations 2022 (SI 2022 No 295). However, many restrictions remain in place, meaning if a couple wish to have total autonomy over where to have their ceremony, their marriage may not be legally binding. Added to this are the complexities between the rules for civil or religious ceremonies, with differing rules depending on the religious group, and the red tape that inevitably adds to the ever-mounting costs involved. In the current economic climate, for some, a wedding may simply be off the cards all together.

Couples wishing to take an alternative approach, such as beach weddings, humanist ceremonies, or even a wedding in a private setting, must later legalise their wedding in an approved venue or deny their celebration legal status. The idea of saying “I do”, and then having to go through an additional process to formalise their marriage, is (at best) an outdated practice, diminishing the significance of a wedding ceremony to something akin to a party. Despite the recent changes, the current law lacks the level of choice that we would expect from a diverse society. It disregards the fact that many couples come together from different backgrounds and would (if permitted) wish to have a wedding that captures their two faiths coming together.

The Law Commission

On 19 July 2022, the Law Commission of England and Wales published its report, recommending that the existing rules take a step away from the current building-centric system, and instead recommending that the officiant should be the focus. An officiant-led system would mean that couples could hold their ceremony at a meaningful place of their choosing (if agreed by the officiant) and would allow couples to regain autonomy in their choice of venue. The Law Commission are also recommending that the open-door policy be removed, with information about a wedding being published online at the preliminary stages, rather than allowing access to the public on the big day itself. This would further expand the types of venue that couples could choose, including family homes and other private settings.

A further recommendation is to expand the types of officiants who would be able to conduct ceremonies by law. This could allow officiants who are part of non-religious belief organisations, such as humanists and independent celebrants (who are currently not able to perform legal ceremonies in England and Wales) to be nominated by their organisation, if permitted by Parliament. The recommendations would also give greater freedoms to couples and officiants over the content of their wedding ceremony, including the option to have religious elements within their civil ceremony, so that it can be unique and tailored to them.

If the Law Commission’s recommendations are implemented by Parliament, couples will have a much wider choice over the location and content of their wedding. Sitting on long waiting lists to be able to marry at a limited set of wedding venues across the country (many at an eye-wateringly high price tag) may no longer be necessary. Picturesque outdoor weddings or even beach weddings could be a thing of the future, and weddings at home could become possible. Perhaps we could see a snow-filled winter wedding, replicating the iconic wedding of Phoebe and Mike in the well-known Friends episode – time will tell.

The validity of marriage

Although we are yet to receive the Government’s response to the Law Commission’s report, if and until any of the Law Commission’s recommendations are implemented, it remains vital that couples conduct their ceremony in a way that is recognised bylaw.

A marriage is important, not just in the sense of personal significance through showing commitment to one another, but legally too. Marriage allows spouses to create a binding legal relationship between them, with legal duties and responsibilities. It confers inheritance rights under the rules of intestacy, it has an impact on parental responsibility and ultimately, should things go wrong, marriage has a key role in the ability for parties to distribute assets on separation. Until a marriage breaks down, parties may be wholly unaware that their marriage was not legally binding, which can have significant and sometimes devastating financial consequences. Therefore, ensuring a marriage will be validly conducted under the laws of England and Wales is a vital first step for future brides and grooms to take. Imagine spending tens of thousands of pounds on getting married, only to find out you never got married at all.

If you have any questions about the validity of your marriage or civil partnership, or any other matrimonial or family matters, please do get in touch with Tessa Bray or Emma Reynolds in the SMB family law team.