On 3rd September 2020, the Law Commission released a consultation paper: ‘Getting Married: A Consultation Paper on Weddings Law’*. This consultation is an opportunity for all of us to share our experiences of getting married, our insights into the system as it stands and have our say on the proposed changes to the Marriage Act 1949. The Marriage Laws entrenched in British tradition have not fundamentally changed since the 18th century and in my opinion do not serve the needs of couples wishing to marry in the 21st century.
This consultation comes at an important time when couples are faced with draconian restrictions on marriage ceremonies and wedding receptions following the outbreak of Covid 19 in the UK. Restrictions which may not be lifted for many more months. The financial and emotional impact on couples, wedding venues and wedding suppliers has been overwhelming. Yearly incomes entirely wiped out, widespread redundancies, deposits lost on wedding bookings, little to no compensation, years of hard work and dedication lost, dreams dashed and no clear guidance on when we can hope to start again. Ineligible for furlough or any other government funding, myself and others have had to fall back on personal savings, take on debt, seek other jobs or look for alternative revenue streams. We have been decimated. Worrying how we will pay our bills, if our businesses will survive beyond 2020 and receiving abuse from upset couples who just want to get married as they intended. Whilst the Marriage Laws may not have directly affected this outcome, they certainly haven’t helped.
What will the proposed changes to the Marriage Laws mean for couples wanting to get married?
For many couples and venues, the restrictions in the number of guests who can attend a wedding ceremony and the type of wedding reception you can hold have made weddings financially and reasonably unviable. If you are planning any kind of legal marriage ceremony in England or Wales, the law states that you have to have an officiant. Currently, this means that 12 guests can attend your marriage ceremony (two of them must be official witnesses). It must also be in a licensed venue or church. Venue hire fees can run into £’000s which, when you look at the cost on a price per head basis, now makes the fee economically unviable for many. Added to that, most venues are designed to accommodate 100 + guests which means a party of 15 easily gets lost.
A change to the Marriage Laws could mean that couples could choose to get married at home, in a local restaurant, their pub, a village hall, outside on a beach or on a mountain top. This would mean greater flexibility for the couple and allow couples the freedom to make the location of their wedding more personal to them. If you are restricted to 15 then why should couples have to spend a fortune on a licensed wedding venue when home might be a more ideal option.
Their officiant could even be a family member or friend. There is likely to be training and a registration process to ensure that the officiant is appropriate for the job, able to uphold the law and take legal responsibility. Essentially the licence will be with the officiant which means as long as you have a licensed official to oversee the ceremony and ensure all the legalities are adhered to you could get married wherever you like.
Importantly, the changes also propose to extend the period of validity for the certificate for the marriage to proceed. This certificate, issued by the Registrars, is currently only valid for 12 months. My local district council charges £70 per couple for the application. If the certificate runs out, the couple have to re-apply at another cost of £70. Most couples this year will have had to postpone their weddings which means they are likely to have had to re-apply for a certificate allowing them to get married. If the restrictions continue into 2021, many couples may face further re-applications. I was unable to find out if this refusal to offer extensions to the certificate was a dictate from central government or our local government but either way this is grossly unfair.
Many weddings take many years to plan. Financial pressures, work, ill health and venue availability can all extend the period between engagement and marriage. Planning weddings can be stressful. There is lots to think about, prepare for and plan. By removing the time limit on the certificates, this aspect of planning can become much more straightforward and give couples the flexibility to marry when they are ready.
How could the proposed changes to the Marriage Laws affect wedding venues?
Many licensed wedding venues may be fearful of the proposed changes to the marriage laws however I think this is needless. Most couples, who dream of a large wedding with all their close friends and family, will struggle to accommodate everyone at home or in non-designated wedding venues. Marquees are an option if you have a big enough garden but these are often more expensive to hire than a wedding venue. There will therefore still be a need for independent wedding venues.
In fact I think that these proposed changes stand to benefit wedding venues across the UK. No longer will you be beholden to the local Registrars office having a officiant available on the same date as your wedding venue. Anyone will be able to train and register as an officiant provided they are capable of undertaking the legal obligations. This means you or a member of your team could train as an officiant and preside over the wedding ceremony yourself. This would add value to your couples or offer you an additional revenue stream. Wedding venues will also not have to worry about maintaining their civil ceremony licence nor the added expense that accompanies the renewal.
How could the proposed changes to Wedding Laws affect churches?
My husband and I married in a church. Neither of us have a particular faith but both of us were brought up in church-going families. The church had no particular significance for us but I had lived in the Parish at one point in my life and it was near the reception venue we had chosen. We were attracted by the tradition (family and societal) and by the style of formality offered. It was a very pretty church and could fit all our guests. The vicar was lovely, relaxed and hospitable. He had a modern outlook and allowed us some flexibility. We could choose readings and hymns, we could have non-religious readings and music. It was the marriage ceremony I had imagined growing-up.
Had the marriage laws been different then we may have had other thoughts. My husband loves aeroplanes, most of his family have worked for airlines at one time or another. I wouldn’t have put it past him to suggest getting married inside the Concorde at Fleet!
The proposed changes to the marriage laws may affect churches. The changes propose to allow religious readings and hymns to be sung at civil ceremonies which will allow much more flexibility for non-religious venues. However the USP of churches in providing a venue reflecting the religious faith and culture of the couple will still remain, as will the connection to home and community and the historic tradition.
For me these proposed changes to the Marriage Laws in England and Wales are about giving the couples the choice and flexibility to choose how and where they get married. If you value your freedom then please do share your views on this consultation paper. It is a meaty document but you have until 3rd December 2020 to share your thoughts. You can start it and then save the document to return when you have another few minutes to spare. It is really important that we have our say. Changes to these laws will undoubtedly affect how we get married and the wedding industry for many years to come. Whatever your relationship to the wedding industry, age, marriage status, sex, sexual orientation, faith, colour, ethnicity or origin, you have a right to have your say.
*Getting Married: A Consultation Paper on Weddings Law
At a glance: the Law Commissions consultation on Getting Married
Getting Married: A Summary of the Weddings Law Consultation Paper
If you would like any further help or advice on planning your wedding or if you are concerned about how the proposed changes to the Wedding Laws may affect you or your wedding venue then please do get in touch.