What does marriage law reform mean for celebrants?


The marriage law in England and Wales largely dates back to 1836, with a series of peace-meal reforms by various Governments over the years, resulting in a system that is no longer fit for purpose as it fails to reflect the social reality of 21st century adult relationships and the diverse nature of our country.  

It is largely accepted by Government that reform of the outdated marriage law is required and in 2018 The Law Commission began their review with the aim of modernising the marriage law to provide all couples with a greater choice within a simple, fair and consistent structure, so they can have a legal wedding ceremony that is meaningful to them.

Many non-legally binding wedding ceremonies currently take place; a  recent study estimated that Independent Celebrants in England and Wales conduct approximately 10,000 ceremonies each year and Humanist Celebrants around 1,000 ceremonies each year.  Couples choose to have a Celebrant wedding because they want a meaningful wedding ceremony in the location of their choice.  As things stand, they are required to complete the legal registration of marriage separately to their Celebrant ceremony.  The Law Commission review is proposing that these ceremonies are legally binding.

Where can legal marriage ceremonies currently take place?

The rules of how and where a legally binding marriage takes place are very restricted.  Couples are currently limited to the following:-

  • Church of England and Church of Wales wedding
  • Civil marriage in a Register Office or an approved premises
  • Society of Friends wedding
  • Jewish wedding

Current rules for Civil Marriage Ceremonies

Each year, 75% of weddings are undertaken by the Registration Service, either at a Register Office or at a licensed premises in a designated licensed area.  A Registrar is appointed by the local authority and reads from an approved script with the couple’s name’s inserted into the script.  Civil marriage ceremonies are not personalised and must be completely non-religious with poems and music lyrics being required to be submitted for approval prior to the ceremony.  There is no opportunity for a civil wedding ceremony to reflect a couple’s religious beliefs.

What are the proposals from the Law Commission that affect Celebrants?

The proposals suggest expanding the list of authorised officiants from both belief organisations and also independent officiants to conduct legally binding marriages.

The proposals are as follows:-

  • Approved Independent Celebrants would be required to apply to the General Register Office for authorisation who will hold a list of all approved Independent Officiants.  They will need to prove that they are a “Fit and proper person” and undertake relevant training with either the General Register Office or approved by the Register General.
  • Humanist Celebrants would be nominated by Humanists UK and will be required to undertake the relevant training.
  • To allow weddings to take place outdoors such as woodlands, beaches, fields, private gardens and also in the grounds of current wedding venues.  
  • To allow weddings to take place in a greater variety of venues, such as cruise ships and also private homes.
  • To give couples flexibility and choice over the form and content of their wedding ceremony
  • To streamline the entire process to make it simpler and fairer for couples to follow, such as allowing notice to be given online or by post.
  • To ensure that more religious weddings that are conducted according to religious rites are legally recognised.

Why should Celebrants support these proposals?

The proposals put forward by the Law Commission would really help the smooth running of the marriage process whilst also giving couples a legal wedding ceremony that is meaningful to them.

All couples deserve the right to choose the content of their ceremony, whether they have a belief, no faith, mixed faiths, spirituality or wish to include cultural traditions.  Celebrants write and deliver bespoke, ceremonies that are tailor-made to each couple, reflecting their ideas, beliefs, values and personalities.   All couples should be able to choose an approved celebrant who is right for them, including both Independent Celebrants, Humanists and those belonging to other approved belief organisations to carry out their legal wedding ceremony. 

It is so important that couples are able to choose where their wedding ceremony is held and should not be restricted to licensed venues or licensed structures.  

What happens next?

It is vital that Celebrants get behind these proposals.  Humanists UK have been campaigning for change for many years and it is imperative that Independent Celebrants are not left behind.

The responses to the consultation are now being analysed by the Law Commission and they will then publish a report with recommendations to the Government in the second half of 2021.  New legislation will then be drafted and will then have to pass through Parliament and the House of Lords.  The timing of new law being passed is difficult to determine as the Government is currently focused on the pandemic.  However, it is essential that no further quick fix, or short sighted amendments are made and that the Law Commission proposals are considered in full.   There is a possibility that proposals may change as a result of the consultation, so we must keep up the pressure to ensure that Independent Celebrants are included in proposals put forward to the Government.  

What can we do to support the proposals?

It is time for all Celebrants, couples and the Wedding Industry to support the Law Commission proposals to allow approved officiants, including Independent Celebrants to perform legal marriage ceremonies.   

You can do this by getting behind the Give Couples Choice Movement campaign.  Follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook on @GCCMovement.  Also sign up to our newsletter so we can keep you updated.  Our website is https://www.givecoupleschoicemovement.com

Independent Celebrants are also well represented by The Wedding Celebrancy Commission who represent all Celebrants in England and Wales  https://www.weddingcelebrancycommission.uk

Celebrants, couples and The Wedding Industry as a whole will play a key role in keeping up the momentum and raising awareness to ensure the change to marriage law is approved.  Couples deserve to have the choice of a meaningful legal wedding in the location of their choice by the approved officiant of their choice.

Make a difference by joining the Give Couples Choice Movement, get involved, make your voice heard and spread the word! 

Time is of the essence, there are exciting times ahead!

Reference:  Religion and Marriage Law The Need for Reform by Russell Sandberg