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Is my marriage legal?

28 May 2020

The Court of Appeal has recently ruled that an Islamic marriage ceremony falls short of the legal provisions for marriage under English law. As a result, the couple in question were barred from pursuing financial claims against each other upon their separation and the opportunity to account for all the non-monetary contributions normally recognised by the English divorce courts was lost.

Arguably, the problem arises for Islamic marriages only but, with a current trend for wedding ceremonies to take place almost anywhere but a traditional church or register office, it’s worth considering what makes a marriage legal under English marriage law.

What does the English law say?

Both parties must be eligible to marry, which in UK law means that both parties must be over 16 years old (with parental consent if under 18) and single. They can now be of the same sex.

The marriage venue must be licenced, and the venue must be a permanent structure with a roof.

If you decide to marry in a non-licenced place, such as in the middle of a woodland glade, then you will need to follow up (or precede) your wedding celebration with a formal ceremony in a licenced church or building. You can marry abroad, provided you follow the correct legal process in the country selected, and provided it would be a recognised as a proper marriage ceremony in UK law. If not, then a separate formal ceremony in the UK will be required.

There used to be restrictions on the time of day for marriages to take place, but this can now be at any time of day or night. In practice, timings will depend on the availability of the venue, registrar or celebrant. Certain faiths discourage marriage at certain times of the year (for instance, the Catholic church prohibits couples from getting married during the 40 days of Lent).

Who do I need to tell?

For all civil and religious ceremonies in the UK you need to give notice to the Superintendent Registrar who is based closest to where you live. You can give notice up to 12 months prior to your set date or no less than 16 days. Before a church wedding takes place, there must be a reading of the banns.

Whilst most couples want to invite family and guests, there is no legal requirement for this. However, the ceremony must take place in front of a registrar, or person authorised to marry couples, and the ceremony requires two witnesses.

What paperwork do I need?

Once you have fixed your wedding date, venue and time you will need to produce evidence of your identity, name, age, nationality, and so on. If you are already married and divorced you will need to produce your certificate of decree absolute. Currently, a flat fee of £30 is payable for your marriage certificate.

Can we write our own vows?

In a civil ceremony yes, though you will need to include the standard statutory declarations of marriage.

Once you have both declared that you are free to marry and have said the contracting words in front of the required witnesses and registrar in a church or licenced building then you are legally married in the eyes of English law.

So, it is time for a reform of the laws of marriage in the UK? In a society as rich in diversity and culture as ours surely it should be possible for couples to be free to choose exactly where when and how to formalise their respective “I do’s”.

However, until the laws are changed to put unmarried couples on an equal financial footing to married couples when their relationship breaks down, the cost of getting it wrong far outweighs the benefit of being free to arrange your own marriage ceremony exactly as you might like it.

Email Sharon

Sharon Giles is a partner and head of our Legal 500-rated divorce & family law team. She specialises in complex financial matters often involving business interests, significant pension resources and/or properties and investments owned abroad. For clear advice on resolving any family law issue, contact Sharon above or on 01242 514000.

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Sharon Giles LLB (Hons)
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