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The Bill

The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill (PDF) (the Bill) is a Private Member’s Bill sponsored by Pauline Latham (Conservative). Explanatory Notes (PDF) have been prepared by the Ministry of Justice and Home Office.

The Bill would raise to 18 the minimum age for marriage and civil partnership in England and Wales. The Explanatory Notes (PDF) state how this might affect marriages and civil partnerships which take place outside of England and Wales:

The anticipated effect of this change on the common law will also mean that any marriages which take place overseas, or in Scotland or Northern Ireland, involving under 18s where one of the parties is domiciled in England and Wales, will not be legally recognised in England and Wales. This change to recognition will also apply to civil partnerships.

The Bill would also expand the existing criminal law on forced marriage to make it illegal for a person to arrange the marriage of a person under the age of 18 in England and Wales. The offence would apply to any religious or civil ceremony of marriage, whether or not it is legally binding. The existing law only applies if a form of coercion is used or if the victim lacks capacity under the Mental Capacity Act 2005.

Second reading of the Bill in the House of Commons took place on 19 November 2021 when it received Government and Opposition support.

A Public Bill Committee considered the Bill in one sitting on 12 January 2022. No amendments were tabled and there was a single debate covering whether all nine clauses and the schedule should stand part of the Bill, none of which were opposed. The Bill was reported without amendment.

Report stage in the House of Commons is due to take place on 25 February 2022.


Minimum age for marriage and civil partnership

In England and Wales, the minimum age for marriage or civil partnership without parental or other third-party consent (as defined), or judicial consent, is 18. A person who is 16 or 17 may marry or form a civil partnership only with such consent (unless the 16- or 17-year-old is a widow or widower or surviving civil partner). A marriage or civil partnership is void if either of the parties is under the age of sixteen.

In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, 147 16-17-year-olds entered into a legally binding marriage with a member of the opposite sex. This figure represents 0.06% of all marriages that took place in England and Wales in 2018. Marriages of same‑sex couples are not reported with a detailed age breakdown, and neither are civil partnerships.

UNICEF considers that child marriage is a violation of human rights. United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5.3, agreed to by world leaders, is, “Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation”. The Explanatory Notes (PDF) to the Bill note that “the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommends that there should be no legal way for anyone to marry before they turn 18, even if there is parental consent”. In 2016, the Committee recommended to the UK that it raise the minimum age to 18.

Several previous Private Members’ Bills have attempted to raise the minimum age of consent for marriage or civil partnership to 18, and, in some cases, to criminalise child marriage or civil partnership, but none were successful.

Forced marriage

Government guidance on recognising a forced marriage states:

A forced marriage is where one or both people do not (or in cases of people with learning disabilities or reduced capacity, cannot) consent to the marriage as they are pressurised, or abuse is used, to force them to do so. It is recognised in the UK as a form of domestic or child abuse and a serious abuse of human rights.

The criminal law on forced marriage (as it applies in England and Wales) is set out in section 121 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. Section 121 makes it an offence for a person to use violence, threats, or any other form of coercion for the purpose of causing another person to enter into a marriage, and they believe (or ought reasonably to believe) that their conduct may cause the other person to enter into the marriage without free and full consent.

It is also an offence to pursue conduct for the purpose of causing a victim who lacks capacity (by reference to the Mental Capacity Act 2005) to consent to marriage, whether or not that conduct amounts to violence, threats or any other form of coercion.

For these purposes ‘marriage’ is defined as any religious or civil ceremony of marriage (whether or not legally binding).

In its Tackling violence against women and girls strategy the Government set out its commitment to “the goal of ending child marriage in this country”. It also acknowledged “the need to signal to other countries that child marriage is something which needs to be tackled”.


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