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This briefing paper deals with the position in England and Wales.

Recognition of religious marriage

To be legally valid, a religious marriage (other than marriage according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England and the Church in Wales, and Jewish and Quaker marriage) must generally take place in a registered building.  Those who wish to celebrate their marriage in a place of worship, or elsewhere, that has not been registered for marriage must go through an additional civil ceremony in order to be legally married. 

Marriages which take place overseas will be recognised in the UK in specified circumstances.

Islamic marriage and divorce in England and Wales

Many Muslims in the UK have an Islamic religious marriage ceremony – a Nikah – in an unregistered building and do not have an additional civil ceremony. This means that their marriage will not be recognised as being legally valid.

The husband can end a Nikah marriage by using the “Talaq” procedure, which is not court based, whereas the wife will use a different procedure which usually involves an application to a Sharia Council.  

The 2018 Independent Review into the application of Sharia Law in England and Wales found that a significant number of Muslim couples do not register their religious marriage as a civil marriage and that, therefore, some Muslim women have no option of obtaining a civil divorce.

Legal consequences of unregistered religious marriage

The law generally regards parties to a marriage which is not legally recognised as cohabitants, and their marriage as a “non-marriage”, rather than as a void marriage. Although it is not always strictly necessary to do so, the parties to a void marriage may seek a decree of nullity. One advantage of doing so is that, when granting the decree, the court has the same powers to make orders for financial provision as on divorce. This contrasts with the position for “non-marriages” where the parties cannot petition in an English court for a decree of divorce or nullity, and consequent financial provision, if their relationship breaks down, and the court has no power to override the strict legal ownership of property.

In 2018, the Family Court ruled that a Nikah marriage of a specific couple was a void marriage and not a “non-marriage”. The Government appealed. In a judgment published in February 2020, the Court of Appeal allowed the appeal and held that there had been no ceremony in respect of which a decree of nullity could be granted.

Sharia councils

Sharia Councils deal with aspects of Islamic law and offer advice relating principally to marriage and divorce. Sharia Councils have no legal status and no legal binding authority under civil law. The Government’s position is that people should be free to practice individual religious freedom but that national law will always prevail if it conflicts with religious practices.

Although many people benefit from guidance from faith leaders, there is also some evidence which suggests that some religious bodies might be operating in ways that are discriminatory against women, including, for example, women being invited to make concessions to their husbands in order to secure a divorce.

Calls for the law to be changed

Independent Review into the application of Sharia Law in England and Wales

The Independent Review into the application of Sharia Law in England and Wales, published in February 2018, found evidence of a range of good and bad practice across Sharia councils and made a series of recommendations to Government including:

  • that the law should be changed to ensure that civil marriages are conducted before or at the same time as the Islamic marriage ceremony to ensure that a greater number of women would have the right to a civil divorce and consequent financial provision;
  • that cultural change within Muslim communities was necessary so that communities acknowledge women’s rights in civil law, especially in areas of marriage and divorce;
  • the creation of a body by the State that would set up the process for councils to regulate themselves and design a code of practice for Sharia councils to accept and implement. This recommendation was not unanimous and was rejected by the Government on the basis that regulation could add legitimacy to the perception of the existence of a parallel legal system even though the outcomes of Sharia Councils have no standing in civil law.

In March 2018, the Government published its Integrated Communities Strategy green paper in which it welcomed the Review. The Government said that it shared the concerns about the lack of legal protections available following an unregistered marriage and about the allegations of discrimination, and that it would consider limited law reform. The Government also stated that it would support awareness campaigns.

In October 2019, the Government indicated that it was still considering the matter of law reform.

Council of Europe resolution

In January 2019, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed a resolution which raised concerns about the operation of Sharia councils in the UK, highlighting marital issues and Islamic divorce proceedings. The resolution called on the UK to make it a legal requirement for Muslim couples to register their marriages civilly before or at the same time as their religious ceremony, and to ensure that Sharia councils operate within the law.

Other calls for law reform

  • The Casey Review A review into opportunity and integration, published in 2016, also called for the registration of all marriages taking place in the UK;
  • the Register Our Marriage campaign, founded in 2014, is calling for it to be compulsory for all UK religious marriages to be registered.
  • Baroness Cox (Crossbench) has introduced Private Member’s Bills on related issues for eight consecutive years.

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