Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the North
Mark Gregory
8:39 AM 4th September 2020

The New Proposed Laws On Marriage In England And Wales Explained

The Law Commission has put forward several proposals that would loosen the restrictions on where couples are allowed to legally marry in England and Wales. These proposed laws on marriage will be under consultation until 3 December, with a report set to be published by the end of next year. If you’re confused about what this means, keep reading.

What are the Current Laws?

The current laws that govern legal marriage in England and Wales are relatively restrictive and essentially consist of two options: a religious marriage in a church, or a civil marriage in a registry office or other approved venue. As it stands, there around 40,000 religious buildings in which it is possible to get legally married, with around 7,000 ‘approved venues’ and under 80 registry offices.

That might seem like plenty, but religious or civil ceremonies have a number of restrictions which make it difficult for couples to have the wedding that they truly want.

From the commission’s scoping paper:

With a few limited exceptions, it is not possible to marry outdoors, or in one’s own home, or indeed in any place other than one specifically authorised for the purpose. It is not possible for a non-religious belief organisation such as the British Humanist Association to conduct any form of legally binding ceremony of marriage. And even couples who wish to marry in a religious ceremony may not have the option to do so if they do not qualify to marry in a particular place.

Couples must also make a choice between a religious ceremony or a civil ceremony: there is a bar on including religious content within a civil ceremony and many religious groups will have a prescribed liturgy that the couple will be expected to follow. This poses a particular problem for the increasing number of interfaith couples, where each belongs to a different faith, who will generally have to choose between a ceremony that reflects the faith of one and a ceremony that reflects the faith of neither.

Scoping paper page 5, paragraphs 1.5 and 1.6

Essentially, these restrictions have led to the rise of the celebrant industry, as couples seek to have a ceremony which reflects the individuality of each person. The only problem is that celebrant-led ceremonies aren’t legal marriages – couples must go to the registry office and get legally married in front of a handful of witnesses before they have their real ‘wedding’ with the celebrant and their family and friends. This can be confusing for couples. This inflexibility in the law and lack of clarity is what the commission is seeking to change.

Why is the Law Change Necessary?

Since the option of getting married in an ‘approved venue’ was introduced in the 1994 Marriage Act, that option has soared in popularity, “rising from an initial 0.9% of all marriages in 1995 to 36.4% in 2005 and 60% in 2012.” This basically means that the popularity of getting married in a venue that isn’t a church or a registry office has grown so much that it’s now the preferred options for most couples. And given the restrictions and lack of clarity mentioned above, it is leading to confusion and difficulties for couples:

As a result, many couples will need to have two (or possibly more) ceremonies to satisfy both the law and their own wishes or conscience: one ceremony that the law regards as binding and another belief-based ceremony that couples may regard as their “true” marriage ceremony. Other couples decide not to marry at all if they cannot do so in the way they want, or travel to another jurisdiction that permits a wider range of weddings. More worryingly, some go through a ceremony without checking whether it is legally recognised and only discover their lack of legal status at the time of relationship breakdown. There have been a number of cases in recent years in which the courts have had to decide whether a particular couple were in fact legally married, and the difficulty of interpreting the relevant legislation indicates a disturbing lack of certainty about what actually constitutes a marriage.

page 5, paragraph 1.7

In essence, while the popularity of non-traditional weddings has gone up, the option to have such weddings be legally binding has not been made available, and this means couples are forced to have two ceremonies in order to fully cater to their wishes.

Therefore, the law change is necessary because it will make life simpler for couples who wish to get married in non-traditional ways and in non-approved venues, because the demand for such weddings to be legalised is high, and rising quickly.

What Does the Commission Seek to Change?

Here’s the nitty-gritty: what exactly is the commission seeking to change in the laws on marriage? They have a great at-a-glance summary right here, but to save you a click, our own summary is below:

Preliminary Legalities

The current law:
A person must give notice that they intend to get married in person at their local registry office, where they must have lived for seven days. This notice is posted at the local register office.

The proposed law:
A person will be able to give notice that they intend to marry remotely, and can choose their district. This notice will be published online and available to the wider public.

Types of Wedding

The current law:
Couples must choose between a religious and a civil ceremony. There is no option for a legal ceremony to cater for couples with differing beliefs, or beliefs that are non-religious.

The proposed law:
The proposed changes would allow weddings conducted by non-religious organisations such as Humanists or by independent celebrants to be legally binding.


The current law:
All couples must be legally married in a place of worship or a licensed secular venue. They are unable to get legally married outdoors, even in the garden of any aforementioned venue.

The proposed law:
Legal weddings will be allowed to take place anywhere the couple chooses, including outdoors and in their own homes.


The current law:
Civil weddings and some religious weddings must involve certain prescribed words. Religious elements are not allowed to be included in civil ceremonies.

The proposed law:
There will be no prescribed words, allowing couples to have more flexibility deciding what form their ceremony will take. Civil ceremonies will be able to have religious elements in them if the couple desires.

What Does This Mean?

All in all, this is great news for couples and celebrants alike: couples will now have greater flexibility in organising their big day, without having to worry about not having their marriage recognised legally, or having to visit the registry office before the actual event.

Furthermore, celebrants like myself will be allowed to conduct marriages that are legally binding, which will further strengthen the already growing celebrant industry.

Bear in mind that this is simply a list of proposed changes; we’re still a year or so away from this being signed into law – if the government agrees with the proposed changes, of course.

Mark is a funeral celebrant and can be contacted through his website at