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Couples ‘should be able to wed on beaches, in gardens and on cruise ships’

Existing law on weddings in England and Wales does not work for most couples, according to the Law Commission (Anthony Devlin/PA)
Existing law on weddings in England and Wales does not work for most couples, according to the Law Commission (Anthony Devlin/PA)

Couples should be able to wed on beaches, in gardens and on cruise ships, according to a body calling for an overhaul of “confusing, out-of-date and restrictive” marriage laws.

Existing law on weddings in England and Wales is “stuck in time” and does not work for most couples, according to the Law Commission, which advises the Government on law reform.

It said “needless regulation” prevents couples from marrying in a place that is special to them, or having a ceremony that reflects their wishes and beliefs.

Consequently, it warns many couples are choosing to celebrate in a way the law does not recognise, some are getting married abroad and some are paying for two ceremonies – one that complies with the law and one that aligns with their personal values.

Currently, a couple must choose between a civil or religious ceremony, and hold their wedding in a registered building, and there are different rules among religious groups and for civil services.

The Law Commission is proposing that weddings should be able to take place in “any safe and dignified location”, such as family homes, gardens, beaches, forests, parks, village halls and cruise ships.

The officiant, not the location, would be regulated, and couples would have more freedom to personalise the content of their ceremony.

The proposed changes would enable couples to wed in “smaller and cheaper” venues, with increasing demand for more affordable, personal options, and as the cost-of-living crisis and the ‘Covid backlog’ of weddings persist.

And a set of universal rules would apply across religious and civil weddings, with few exceptions, enabling fairer treatment for all beliefs.

This could include legalising non-religious belief ceremonies, such as humanist weddings, if permitted by Government.

It also recommends that special measures should be taken in the event of a national emergency such as the coronavirus pandemic, which prevents couples from complying with requirements, such as allowing witnesses to attend weddings remotely.

The Law Commission said its proposals would represent the biggest overhaul of wedding law since the 19th Century.

It intends to offer couples more freedom while also preserving the dignity of weddings and protecting traditions of religious groups.

And it said the proposals would enhance protections against forced and predatory marriage, and maintain protection against sham marriages.

Professor Nick Hopkins, family law Commissioner at the Law Commission, said: “The current law on weddings is not working for many couples. Needless restrictions and outdated regulations mean that thousands each year are denied having a wedding that is meaningful to them.

“Our reforms for Government are designed to protect the established practices and dignity of weddings, while offering couples more choice on where and how they marry.

“There is widespread precedent for our reforms around the world.

“By giving couples more control over their weddings and ensuring greater parity for all beliefs, the law can support those who want to get married, rather than putting unnecessary barriers in the way.”

Humanists UK said the proposals would take some years to implement if accepted by the Government, but that the Government could give legal recognition to humanist weddings through secondary legislation immediately.

Humanists UK chief executive Andrew Copson said: “We urge the Government to enact this now, and give couples in England and Wales the freedom to choose a marriage that aligns with their beliefs and values.

“For thousands of couples it is hugely frustrating that something as uncontroversial as legal recognition for humanist marriages has been delayed for almost a decade.”

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “We asked the Law Commission to review our current marriage laws to ensure this important institution continues to reflect modern society.

“We will carefully review these recommendations and respond in due course.”