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What's wrong with weddings?

Nothing at all, if the weddings are the ceremonies that couples want, conducted when they want, where they want, and by whom they want. But, according to Dr Stephanie Pywell, there is quite a lot wrong with the law that governs weddings, some of which existed before Queen Victoria ascended the throne. 

The root of the problem

Parliament last debated some aspects of the law that governs weddings in England and Wales in 1836, when both were predominantly Christian countries. The law also still treats marriages in the 'established' Anglican church differently from all other types of weddings. This means that, for almost all couples, wedding ceremonies must be either completely religious or completely secular. That presents difficulties for couples who are unsure about their belief(s) in any god(s), couples who have different belief systems, and couples who want to honour their parents or community by including religious or cultural elements in a principally secular ceremony.

Another problem is that, because of the religious/secular divide, there are significant restrictions on who may conduct weddings and where they may do so.

And, in many areas of England and Wales, it is impossible to marry in a legally binding ceremony for the £127 that the law specifies. In others, couples must wait months. This is, arguably, a breach of a couple's basic human right to 'marry and found a family'.

The religious/secular divide

I read about a couple who had been told that their registrar-led wedding could include the traditional vows: 'to have and to hold… in sickness and in health…'. The day before their wedding, a different registrar phoned the bride and told her those words were 'too religious', so they would have to say, 'to hold and to have' and 'in sickness and when we are well' instead. On their wedding day, the groom stumbled over his amended words, and the bride 'got the giggles', marring the dignity of the occasion.

To investigate the religious/secular problem, I was privileged to work with Professor Rebecca Probert from the University of Exeter, the leading expert on weddings law in England and Wales. We conducted two surveys – one involving couples planning civil weddings in register offices or the approved premises that host' venue weddings', and one involving registrars. We asked what vows, rituals, readings, and music couples would like to include in their wedding ceremonies and whether registrars would feel able to include their choices, given that the law states '[a]ny proceedings… shall not be religious in nature'.

Rebecca and I discovered a lot of variation in the readings and other content that registrars immediately recognised as 'religious'; this differed even between registrars working in the same registration service. This confusion – and the resulting inconsistency, unfairness and distress to couples – arises because the content of each wedding ceremony has to be approved by the superintendent registrar who will conduct it. Our findings led one registration service (every local authority has its own service) to develop resources that categorise readings and music as religious or secular. The service continues to develop that resource and has offered to share it with other registration services in its region.

Who may conduct weddings

The myriad restrictions around weddings have led to a growth in independent 'wedding celebrancy'. Wedding celebrants conduct personalised wedding-style ceremonies that have no legal effect. These events can take place more or less anywhere, at more or less any time of day or night, and can include more or less anything the couple wish them to include. They can encompass any theme and include blends of civil, religious and cultural elements tailored to couples' beliefs and lifestyles. I conducted the first survey exploring celebrancy by directly asking celebrants what they do and why and how they do it.

Most of my respondents ensure that couples know that the ceremonies they conduct are not legally binding – this is crucial because married couples have many legal rights that are not available to unmarried cohabiting couples. I was concerned, though, that many celebrants refer to their ceremonies as 'weddings' or 'marriages'. As a result of my work, the Wedding Celebrancy Commission – an umbrella organisation for celebrants' membership organisations and training providers – tightened its professional standards: celebrants are now required to explain the non-legally binding nature of their ceremonies.

My survey showed that most respondents' fees are similar to those charged by registrars and by celebrants who conduct legally binding weddings in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Ireland and Jersey. I established that most respondents would be willing to pay for formal registration that would enable them to conduct legally binding ceremonies if Parliament changed the law to allow this. This led me to propose elements of a legal framework for widening the choice of people who can conduct weddings.

The cost of getting married

At the other end of the personalisation scale, a couple has the right to marry in any register office for a total of £127 (more, if one or both of them is not a UK national) in a short and simple register office ceremony attended only by them, two registrars and two witnesses. I explored the websites of about one-fifth of the local authority areas in England and Wales to see how much such ceremonies cost, and how easy it appeared to book them.

My research revealed several issues of concern. First, minimal ceremonies were not readily available – in some areas, they could be arranged for only one morning per month. Some very rough calculations suggested that, in Herefordshire, there is one minimal ceremony slot each week for 139,800 people, while in neighbouring Powys, there is one for every 928 people.

And one in three of the 34 websites that I explored did not mention that it was possible to marry for £127. Some registration services appeared to charge this amount, but nine charged non-refundable 'booking fees' ranging from £27 to £120. In Windsor and Maidenhead, the cheapest advertised ceremony was £321, including a booking fee and marriage certificate. So couples in some areas are effectively denied the right to a quick and inexpensive wedding.

The impact of COVID-19

In August 2020, Rebecca and I ran an online survey into the effects of the first pandemic-related lockdown on couples' wedding plans. Our findings reinforce our view that Parliament should, as a priority, reform the law.

We found that the first lockdown affected all types of weddings – even those planned for the latter half of 2020. Couples reported huge levels of stress and expense associated with changing their plans. We have suggested some specific legal changes that would enable more weddings to go ahead, perhaps in a changed form, in any future national emergency. On 20 June 2021, the Government announced that outdoor weddings would, subject to some restrictions, be permitted at 'approved premises', at least from 1 July 2021 until April 2022.

What next for weddings law?

The Law Commission is a statutory body that reviews and recommends changes to the law. The Consultation Paper for its ongoing Weddings project cites my work 18 times, and the Commission sent me a personal invitation to respond to the proposals in that document.

I hope that policy-makers will see my empirical findings as reinforcing the need for what the Commission describes as 'a reformed law of weddings that allows for greater choice within a simple, fair and consistent legal structure'.

Marriage is important in most cultures, so couples should be able to begin marriages when and where they wish, in whatever way is most meaningful to them.

Written by: Stephanie Pywell, Senior Lecturer in Law at The Open University Law School, Faculty of Business and Law