UK marriage laws are changing. The minimum legal age for marriages and civil partnerships in England and Wales is going to rise to 18. Why is this change happening? What other changes may be on the horizon for UK marriage law?
The new legal age for marriage
On 28 April 2022, the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022 received Royal Assent and became law. The Act will raise the minimum age at which people in England and Wales can marry or form a civil partnership from 16 (although parental consent is already required for people aged 16-18) to 18.
Any marriages (or civil partnerships) entered into by people under the age of 18 before the minimum age was raised will not be affected.
If an adult is responsible for bringing about the marriage of somebody under 18, they may, under the new law, be committing a criminal offence. Penalties may be imposed, including fines and up to 7 years in prison. This applies even if the marriage occurs outside of the UK. Anyone under 18 who gets married will not be subject to fines or imprisonment.
Note that, in Scotland, the minimum age at which someone can get married (or form a civil partnership) will remain 16.
Why has the age changed?
The minimum age is being raised in an attempt to end coercive or abusive child marriages. Campaign groups have long been advocating for the age to be raised to make it harder for children to be pushed into marriages which they do not want and which may negatively affect their futures.
A reduction in child marriages may bring positive outcomes. These include reducing opportunities for child abuse by families and spouses and promoting women obtaining more education (girls who marry whilst minors are more likely to leave education).
Are there other restrictions on who can get married?
In England and Wales, people may be prevented from marrying or forming a civil partnership because of their current marital status, their relation to their intended spouse, or their capacity to understand and consent to marriage.
There are also restrictions on where marriages can take place and on what ceremonies may include. For example, religious marriages must follow certain religious practices, whereas civil marriages cannot include religious elements such as readings of religious texts.
For more information on the rules and procedures surrounding marriage in England and Wales, read Getting married.
What else might change for marriage law?
The Law Commission is in the process of reviewing marriage laws more broadly, in an effort to bring them up to date with modern life. Many rather archaic rules are still in place. These include the prohibition on marrying outdoors or in other unique venues and the inability of some non-religious belief groups to perform legally recognised weddings. The Government is also investigating how marriage laws could be changed to work more comprehensively with Sharia law.
For more information on the marriage process in the UK, read Getting married, Getting married in Scotland and Considerations before getting married or forming a civil partnership. Remember that you can always Ask a lawyer if you have any questions or concerns.