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Sections 1 to 5 of this briefing paper deal with the law in England and Wales. Section 6 sets out a brief summary of the position in Scotland and in Northern Ireland, where it is possible to have a legally recognised humanist marriage ceremony.

Current position in England and Wales

The regulation of marriage is based largely on the building in which the relevant marriage takes place. The Marriage Act 1949 (as amended) provides for civil marriage; marriage according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England and the Church in Wales; Jewish and Quaker marriage; and marriage according to the rites of a recognised religion in a building that has been registered for the purpose. However, there is no specific provision for marriages to be conducted according to any non-religious system of belief, such as humanism.

At present, therefore, humanist marriage ceremonies do not have legal force and the parties must have an additional ceremony (for example, at a register office) for the marriage to be legally valid. Humanists UK has campaigned for the law to be changed to allow humanist celebrants to conduct legal marriages.

Coalition Government consultation

Following calls for legislation to facilitate humanist marriage, the Coalition Government agreed to carry out a review of whether the law should be changed to permit marriage according to the usages of non-religious belief organisations. In accordance with a provision in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, the Ministry of Justice conducted a public consultation on the issue. The consultation ran from 26 June 2014 to 18 September 2014.

The majority of respondents to the consultation were in favour of changing the law to allow legally valid non-religious belief marriage ceremonies to take place in unrestricted locations, including outdoors.   However, the Coalition Government decided that the legal and technical requirements of marriage ceremonies and registration in England and Wales should be considered more generally before, or at the same time as, making a decision on the issue of permitting legally valid non-religious belief marriage ceremonies.

Law Commission project

At the Coalition Government’s request, the Law Commission conducted an initial scoping review of marriage law. It found that the law was badly in need of general reform and that it would not be appropriate to legislate solely for non-religious belief organisations, as this would create further anomalies.

In the October 2018 Budget, the Government announced that, in connection with promoting greater choice of wedding venues, it had asked the Law Commission to propose options for “a simpler and fairer system to give modern couples meaningful choice”.

On 28 June 2019, the Government announced the launch of a Law Commission review of the law governing how and where marriages can take place in England and Wales.

The Law Commission’s terms of reference provide that they will not make recommendations as to whether the groups who can solemnize marriages should be expanded. However, the terms of reference do require the Law Commission to consider how the law could be reformed to enable a wider range of persons to solemnize a marriage, and how marriage by humanist and other non‑religious belief organisations could be incorporated into a revised or new scheme, if the Government decides that the law should allow these groups to conduct legally binding weddings.

Law Commission consultation

On 3 September 2020, the Law Commission published Getting Married: A Consultation Paper on Weddings Law, which provisionally proposes a new scheme intended, among other things, to:

  • allow weddings to take place anywhere, including outdoors;
  • offer couples greater flexibility over the form their wedding ceremonies will take, enabling them, if they desire, to use a variety of ceremonies (religious and non-religious) to mark their weddings;
  • simplify the process and remove unnecessary red tape;
  • provide a framework that could allow non-religious belief organisations (such as humanists) and/or independent celebrants to conduct legally binding weddings.

One of the features of the new scheme is that regulation would be based on the officiant rather than on the building in which the wedding takes place. If the Government determines that non-religious belief organisations should be able to solemnize weddings, these organisations would be able to nominate officiants.

What will happen next?

After analysing the responses, the Commission intends to publish its final report, with recommendations for reform to Government, in the second half of 2021.

Legal challenge

In July 2020, the High Court dismissed a judicial review claim, brought by six couples identifying as humanists, in respect of the Secretary of State for Justice’s failure to extend legal recognition to humanist marriages. They contended that the legislation providing for the legal recognition of marriage in England gives rise to an unjustified discrimination in the exercise of their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”) and therefore breaches the Human Rights Act 1998 (“the HRA”).

Mrs Justice Eady found that, although the law relating to weddings treats humanists differently from those with religious beliefs, addressing the differences in treatment would not be straightforward, and this justified the Secretary of State’s aim of considering the appropriate remedy as part of a more wholesale reform. Taking into account the on‑going review of the law of marriage, Mrs Justice Eady held that, at this time, the Secretary of State had demonstrated that a fair balance has been struck between the individual rights of the couples and those of the broader community.

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