Following the budget announcement, it is anticipated that some of the formalities of getting married will be relaxed, allowing couples in England and Wales to marry on a beach, in a pub, or possibly even in the back garden of their family home. Good news for imaginative modern couples, but could they later discover that they aren't actually married?
The government has asked the Law Commission to review what are recognised as outdated restrictions on wedding venues. The current laws provide that weddings may only take place in a building or permanent structure that has been licensed for weddings. For civil ceremonies, alcohol may not be served during the wedding, or up to an hour beforehand. It is expected that these rules will change, offering more options both to couples and to smaller businesses seeking to provide wedding services.
However, there are other requirements for a marriage to be valid, many of which are unlikely to change. These include the necessity for the ceremony to have been conducted by or in the presence of a person authorised to register marriages and that there be at least two witnesses.
Frequently, parties who have not complied with necessary formalities, but have undertaken a religious marriage, such as an Islamic marriage, or who have undergone an informal ceremony, believe themselves to be married in the eyes of the law. It is only when separation occurs that they discover that the marriage was not valid and they have none of the protections that the law offers to married couples – by which time it is often too late. "Common law" marriages are not recognised in England and so couples who have not complied with the formalities of marriage can find themselves vulnerable, with the financially weaker party unable to claim support from their former partner.
More flexibility in the choice of wedding venue would offer couples a better chance to have the wedding of their dreams. However, for couples seeking a legal marriage, a crucial part of that planning must still be to ensure that the marriage will be effective. The government's recognition of the need to reform the law on marriage is welcome. But until there is greater publicity and clarity regarding the requirements for a marriage to be valid, many people may be left unprotected in the event that their relationship breaks down.