Outdoor Wedding Laws: Has anything changed?

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Outdoor Wedding Laws: Has anything changed?

In its October 2018 Budget report the Government made the welcome announcement that a review had been launched into the seriously outdated wedding laws in England and Wales. Here’s what it said:

5.52 Promoting greater choice of wedding venues – England and Wales have outdated laws about how and where couples can marry. The government has asked the Law Commission to propose options for a simpler and fairer system to give modern couples meaningful choice. This will include looking at reducing unnecessary red tape and lowering the cost of wedding venues for couples.

HM Treasury, 2018 © Crown copyright

This all sounded very exciting and of course the media ran with the story, with headlines such as “Outdoor wedding rule change will make a world of difference” (although the word ‘outdoor’ was not actually mentioned in the budget!) But the story has received very little coverage since. So what’s been going on behind the scenes? We’ve been to find out…

What’s the problem?

The 2018 announcement was by no means a promise to change the current marriage laws, but it was an acknowledgement that nothing has changed in a very long time. The main law that governs marriage in England and Wales comes from 1836 and has not been fundamentally reformed since.

Strict regulations remain in place when it comes to how and where couples may marry, with the legal marriage having to take place within a licensed building or structure. Outdoor locations can be licensed, but only if a ‘fixed and permanent’ structure is in place in the grounds for the couple, registrars and witnesses to stand within for the duration of the ceremony. Even then, the structure would need to be deemed ‘seemly and dignified’ in order to be granted a licence.

A celebrant-led wedding at a licensed outdoor venue

The Law Commission has also identified the stark contrast that currently exists between religious marriage ceremonies and civil ones (Law Commission, 2015). In a registrar-led ceremony it is rare for any religious or spiritual content to be permitted, whereas ceremonies led by ministers are, of course, religious. But in modern society, many couples would prefer a blend of the two – the opportunity to express their own beliefs and values in a way that doesn’t necessarily fit with any approved structure. Choosing a celebrant to lead the ceremony gives couples the opportunity to do just that – but currently that means they’re required to complete their legal marriage at a separate time and place.

In addition to this, the Law Commission notes that couples having an Anglican wedding can give notice to the church, while all other couples must give notice at the register office (Law Commission, 2015). This can be confusing, and if a couple does not comply with the legal requirements then their marriage may not be legally recognised.

Bride and groom getting married inside a church

There’s also the wider problem that legally binding marriage ceremonies generally cannot be made personal to the couple. And in a society where pretty much everything can now be personalised, that poses a problem. When the Law Commission review was announced the then Justice Secretary David Gauke said:

“Getting married is a deeply personal decision, so we want couples to have greater choice in how and where they celebrate their commitment. Whilst we will always preserve the dignity of marriage, people from all walks of life should be able to express their vows in a way that is meaningful to them. This review will look at the red tape and outdated rules around weddings – making sure our laws are fit for modern life.”

GOV.UK, 2019 © Crown copyright

Scope of the review

The Law Commission published its original Scoping Paper on this subject back in 2015, but there have of course been other issues since then that have sat higher on the Government’s list of priorities. The Scoping Paper concluded that there was a need for “a wholescale review of the law relating to how and where people get married”, and that review is the one that’s currently underway.

As part of the project, the Law Commission will consider:

  • The legal preliminaries that should be required prior to a wedding
  • Where weddings should be able to take place
  • Who should be able to solemnise a marriage
  • Whether specific vows should be required during a ceremony
  • How marriages should be registered
  • What the consequences should be for couples who do not comply with any requirements.

When it comes to celebrants, the Law Commission says it will not be making recommendations on whether, as a matter of policy, new groups should be allowed to conduct legally binding weddings. It can propose a system that could potentially allow for this to happen, but this will ultimately be a decision for Government.

A wedding celebrant performing an outdoor ceremony

So when will things change?

The Commission is currently working on the project and is preparing questions and provisional proposals for reform. These will then move to a public consultation stage. The detailed review began in July 2019 and is expected to last two years in total.

The Commission is then expected to make its recommendations for reform to Government in the summer of 2021. The Government is not obliged to take forward these recommendations, but they will of course be seriously considered. Approximately two-thirds of all Law Commission recommendations go on to be enacted into law, so there’s no guarantee – but the fact that the Government has acknowledged the need for reform is a positive sign.

The Law Commission has kindly provided us with the following comment:

“A couple’s wedding day is one of the most important events in their lives. Our project aims to bring the 19th century law up to date and make it more flexible, giving couples greater choice so they can marry in a way that is meaningful to them. We look forward to consulting with the public on this project later this year.”

Law Commission, February 2020

Government’s separate work

It should also be noted that as an entirely separate process to the Law Commission review, the Government is also exploring what can be done to deliver interim reform within the existing buildings-based system in relation to civil weddings. A key part of this will involve considering how regulations governing approved premises for marriage and civil partnership ceremonies could be reformed.

Reform in this area could lead to a greater number of licensed outdoor ceremony options, whilst maintaining the requirement that venues be ‘seemly and dignified’. As far as we’re aware, no specific timeframe has been given for the outcome of this particular review.

Outdoor ceremony signpost

What do we do in the meantime?

The good news is that, although the marriage laws are complex and change is not guaranteed anytime soon, couples who would like to hold an outdoor wedding ceremony still have plenty of options.

There are already a large number of licensed outdoor ceremony venues across the country, and couples who choose to have a celebrant-led wedding and complete the legal formalities separately can choose pretty much anywhere for their outdoor ceremony. There are also a select few register offices which give couples the option to complete a more personalised celebrant-led ceremony and their legal registrar-led ceremony at the same time. An example of this is the pilot Combined Ceremony scheme launched by the Staffordshire Registration Service in 2018.

Still confused? Take a look at our handy Guide to Outdoor Weddings to find out more about your options, or start browsing our directory of beautiful outdoor wedding venues to find your perfect match.

If you’d like to read more about the Law Commission review, the following infographic provides a helpful summary of the process.

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