Couples could soon marry on a cruise, in their kitchen or during a day out at the beach under proposals to tear up current restrictions on where weddings can be held.
In what would be the biggest overhaul to marriage regulations in England and Wales since the 19th century, the Law Commission is recommending that weddings should be able to take place anywhere, providing the presiding official considers it safe and dignified.
The proposed reforms would also potentially expand the pool of people who could act as officiants to all nominated by religious or non-religious organisations, as well as independent officiants aged 18 and over. Independent officiants would have to apply to be individually registered and show they are “fit and proper” persons.
Additionally, for cruise ships with a home port in England and Wales, officers such as the captain or chief mate would also be able to conduct a legally recognised ceremony, even in international waters.
Prof Nick Hopkins, the family law commissioner at the commission, said: “The current law on weddings is not working for many couples. Needless restrictions and outdated regulations mean that thousands each year are denied having a wedding that is meaningful to them.
“Our reforms for government are designed to protect the established practices and dignity of weddings, while offering couples more choice on where and how they marry.
“There is widespread precedent for our reforms around the world. By giving couples more control over their weddings and ensuring greater parity for all beliefs, the law can support those who want to get married, rather than putting unnecessary barriers in the way.”
Under existing rules, religious weddings must take generally place in a registered place of worship and civil weddings in a register office, or on approved premises or their grounds.
Until recently, when the rules for civil weddings were loosened, partly in response to Covid, legally binding outdoor ceremonies were restricted to Jewish couples, Quakers and, on application, Anglicans.
Under the Law Commission’s proposals, couples will be able to get married on the beach, in a park or in coastal waters without the location needing a licence. It will also mean military sites can host same-sex marriages for the first time.
The commission says its recommendations could reduce the cost of weddings dramatically by giving couples options such as marrying at home or in the garden, and scrapping the need for premises to have a licence, which restricts the supply of venues. It also says the increased flexibility could help clear a backlog of weddings caused by restrictions imposed during the coronavirus pandemic.
The greater freedom will also extend to the content of the ceremony such as the vows, rituals and songs chosen. Religious content is currently forbidden in civil ceremonies but the commission says the rules should be loosened to allow, for example, couples who wish to incorporate religious elements for cultural reasons to do so.
Additionally, the changes will allow a religious ceremony to be led by an interfaith minister who incorporates aspects of each of the couple’s beliefs.
The commission said some couples held two ceremonies, “one which complies with the law, and one which reflects their beliefs or values”. Others have one ceremony, sometimes religious, which is not recognised by the law.
The commission said the current regulations were unfair and inconsistent, adding: “With very few exceptions, the same rules would apply in our scheme to all weddings.”
Another recommended change is abolishing the requirement for “open doors”. The commission said there was a widespread misconception, fostered by films, that this was to enable last-minute objections before the vows take place, but the truth is more prosaic.
“In fact, only some religious weddings (those other than Anglican, Jewish and Quaker ones) and civil weddings are required to be open to the public, and that rule was a legacy from 17th-century restrictions on Protestant dissenters meeting for worship,” it said.
Unusual wedding venues
Lusty Glaze beach, in Newquay, says it is the only spot in Cornwall where couples can be legally married on the sands. The privately owned cove is also available as a two-hour slot for elopements. If the government accepts the Law Commission’s recommendations, expect to see a lot more weddings on beaches in England and Wales.
Manchester’s Victoria Baths was described as “the most splendid municipal bathing institution in the country” when it opened in 1906. It shut in 1993 but is now an events venue that accommodates weddings. Under the suggested changes, people could get married in swimming baths that are still open, even in the pool (but probably the shallow end given the requirement for safety).
Brunel’s SS Great Britain, in Bristol, was once the world’s largest ship at just under 100 metres in length and is available for couples to tie the knot. However, the ship remains fixed in place permanently whereas under the proposed laws, the betrothed will literally be able to set sail on their voyage of marriage.
Dreamland, in Margate, Kent, considered the oldest surviving amusement park in the UK, is another potential wedding venue for couples looking to do something out of the ordinary. They – along with guests – can get ready for the journey of marriage by riding the rollercoaster.
The Great Glasshouse might not sound appealing during the current heatwave, but plant lovers can get married in the National Botanic Gardens of Wales for another less traditional option. The glasshouse, which contains the largest collection of Mediterranean plants in the northern hemisphere, is set in 400 acres of the Waun Las national nature reserve in Carmarthenshire.
July 19, 2022 at 04:42AM Haroon Siddique Legal affairs correspondent