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This briefing paper deals with the law in England and Wales. Different legislation and marriage registration systems apply in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Current position

In England and Wales, the law requires all marriages to be registered once they have taken place. The system for registering marriages is currently paper-based. The prescribed particulars to be registered for a marriage include details of the father but not the mother of each of the parties to the marriage.

Marriage registration to change

Calls have been made, both inside and outside of Parliament, for the law to be changed to enable the details of both parents of the parties to the marriage to be included on marriage certificates. The Government has expressed willingness to reform the law.

The Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc.) Act 2019 (the 2019 Act) began as a Private Member’s Bill introduced by Tim Loughton (Conservative) and received Royal Assent on 26 March 2019. Section 1 enables the Secretary of State to make regulations which amend the Marriage Act 1949 to reform the way in which marriages are registered in England and Wales – moving from a paper-based system to registration in an electronic register.

The change to an electronic system will facilitate the amendment of the form and content of the marriage register entry to include, for example, the details of both parents of the couple, without having to replace all 84,000 marriage register books currently in use. Tim Loughton said that it would “make the system more secure and efficient, and it will make it simpler to amend the content of the marriage entry, both now and in the future”.

The basis of the proposed new system is that the parties will sign a marriage schedule document instead of signing the marriage register book. The schedule will then be returned to the register office for the marriage to be registered in an electronic register maintained by the Registrar General.

Those marrying in the Church of England or Church in Wales will still be able to marry by ecclesiastical preliminaries, i.e. banns, common licence or Archbishop of Canterbury’s Special Licence. However, the member of the clergy will issue a “marriage document”, similar to the schedule issued by the superintendent registrar, which is to be taken to the marriage and signed by the couple, their witnesses and the member of the clergy. The couple will be responsible for returning the signed marriage document to the register office.

In all cases, it is intended that a marriage certificate could be issued from the electronic register by registration officials when the marriage has been registered.

When will the changes be implemented?

The detail of the new marriage registration scheme will be set out in regulations which have not yet been published. The timing of the regulations is not yet known.

The regulations to provide for registration in an electronic register will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, meaning that they require the approval of both Houses of Parliament to become law.

The Secretary of State may sub-delegate some aspects of the registration provisions to regulations made by the Registrar General with the approval of the Secretary of State. The provisions that may be delegated include the power to prescribe the form and content of documents, including the marriage schedule and marriage document. These documents will include the particulars to be registered in respect of each marriage.

Law Commission consultation on weddings law

The Law Commission is consulting on a comprehensive new legislative scheme to update the law governing each aspect of the process of getting married, which would give couples greater freedom over where they hold their wedding and the form the ceremony will take. In its consultation paper published on 3 September 2020, the Law Commission said that it supports the introduction of a schedule system and that its provisional proposals for reform are compatible with the 2019 Act. The Law Commission provisionally proposes that, under its proposed new scheme, the schedule should allow the parties to identify their two parents in the way they prefer. The consultation period will run until 3 December 2020. 

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