This Commons Library briefing paper considers the status of humanist marriage ceremonies across the United Kingdom and calls for the law to be changed to allow humanist celebrants to conduct legal marriagesJump to full report >>
Sections 1 to 5 of this briefing paper deal with the law in England and Wales. Section 6 and section 7 deal respectively with the position in Scotland and in Northern Ireland, where it is possible to have a legally recognised humanist marriage ceremony.
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 (formerly the British Humanist Association) has campaigned for the law to be changed to allow humanist celebrants to conduct legal marriages.
Proposals by the Labour Government to give couples a greater choice of where to marry, as part of a more general reform of civil registration, did not proceed.
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.
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 launched a Law Commission review of the law governing how and where marriages can take place in England and Wales. The detailed review, including a final report, is expected to last two years.
The Law Commission has stated that the remit for the project includes developing a scheme that would allow non-religious belief groups, such as humanists, and independent celebrants to celebrate weddings, enabling the Government to widen the routes to legally binding ceremonies if it chooses to do so.
The Government has said that it will decide on provision for humanist marriage on the basis of the Law Commission’s recommendations.
Commons Briefing papers SN05864
Author: Catherine Fairbairn