Calls for marriage law reform after the Covid-19 pandemic
There’s nothing quite like a global pandemic of a novel virus to bring about real change. And our marriage laws are no exception; as the pandemic has lent fresh impetus to the the Law Commission’s calls to modernise our “overly-restrictive” marriage laws.
As we all know a little too well at this stage in the year; 2020 has wreaked havoc with the majority of our “best laid plans”. Weddings and civil ceremonies were banned (along with other private and public gatherings) when lockdown began on 23 March 2020. This has had a profound knock-on effect to society and to the economy.
The Office of National Statistics (ONS) has estimated that 73,400 marriages have been postponed or cancelled, along with 300 same-sex civil partnerships between March 23 and the 3rd July 2020, and that number is likely growing as the pandemic rumbles on.
In fact, the Evening Standard reported back in April, that 64% of all weddings were expected to be cancelled or postponed this year, resulting in a whopping estimated loss of £87.5billion in revenue for the wedding industry.
The importance of weddings and civil ceremonies has been stressed by the current government guidance which states the following:
Marriages and civil partnerships are a vital part of our society, uniting couples to start their new life together and affording certain legal rights…
However, by their very nature, in bringing families and friends together, they are particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19.Covid-19: Guidance for small marriages and civil partnerships
(updated 14 August 2020)
What are the current coronavirus rules around weddings and civil partnership ceremonies?
Since early July, ceremonies with up to 30 guests have been permitted but, as with many of the coronavirus measures, the rules about who can attend ceremonies and receptions vary around the UK…and walking down the aisle will be a decidedly different experience.
Sit-down receptions of up to 30 people (including the couple, guests and third party suppliers) have been allowed in England since 15 August, but only in a Covid-19 secure venue, where social distancing can be safely accomodated.
What is a “covid secure” venue? Well according to the government guidance applicable in England at the time of writing; ceremonies should be kept as short as possible, no food or drink should be consumed unless essential for the ceremony, group singing and playing of instruments should be avoided, and social distancing of at least one metre between different households should be oberved at all times. Not quite the dream wedding that many couples will have envisaged!
In Wales, ceremonies can take place at official register offices and places of worship, as long as they are small and socially distanced, the size of the wedding will depend on the venues capacity to enforce social distancing of 2 metres between households. However, please keep in mind that these rules are constantly evolving with the situation, so do take care to check local rules in force at the time.
So why aren’t outdoor and remote weddings being utilised to save having to push back weddings to 2021 and beyond?
Why can’t we be more pragmatic about the way in which we tie the knot (or enter into a civil partnership) in the midst of a global pandemic?
Well that’s because of our current marriage laws, which were originally formed in 1863, and have recently been described by the Law Commission as “outdated and unecessarily restrictive”.
It is one of the oddities of our legal system that only Jewish and Quaker weddings are permitted to take place outdoors, and there is little scope for a remote/ zoom wedding at present.
The Law Commission has stated that “Currently, many couples face a conflict between how they wish to celebrate their wedding, and how the law requires them to celebrate it. Unnecessary regulation prevents couples from marrying in a place that is meaningful to them and having a ceremony with the vows, rituals and music that reflects their wishes and beliefs.“
As a result, the Law Commission has launched a consultation on provisional proposals to reform the law governing how and where couples can get married, with the consultation period expected to last until 3 December 2020.
What exactly do the current wedding laws say on how ceremonies can be conducted?
What are the provisional proposals for reform?
So far, so good right? But when will this become law (if at all?)
Well the proposed reforms are currently at the consultation stage. Following the consultation period which is due to end on the 3 December 2020, the Law Commission will analyse the responses to inform the development of its final recommendations for reform and is aiming to publish the final report, with recommendations to the government, in the second half of 2021.
If implemented, it is safe to say that the weddings as we know them, may look very different in future; particularly in the event of another global pandemic when it may be come possible to say “I do” via Zoom.
However, we are not able to say for certain at this stage whether or not this will in fact become law. It is fair to say though, that the coronavirus pandemic has further highlighted the inadequacies of the archaic rules around the legal form weddings must take.
Perhaps it is relatively uncontroversial to point out that laws drawn up in the 19th century are no longer fit for purpose and are ripe for reform. It is also hoped that the proposed reforms may help to reduce the costs of weddings for couples, which can be eye-watering.
I will finish this blog by reiterating the comments of Nick Hopkins, the Family Law Commissioner at the Law Commission;
“A couple’s wedding day is one of the most important events in their lives, yet the 19th century laws are not fit for purpose and stop many couples having a wedding which is meaningful and purposeful to them.
Our proposals could give couples the freedom to choose the wedding venue they want and a ceremony that is meaningful to them. By doing so, we hope to make the laws that govern weddings reflect the wishes and needs of today’s society.”Professor Nick Hopkins, Family Law Commissioner
*Please note that the purpose of this blog is to give information and guidance, it is not a substitute for specialist legal advice tailored to your individual situation*
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