Marriage age being raised to 18 in England and Wales

February 2023 sees new laws coming into effect which raise the marriage age in England and Wales to 18. Previously, people aged 16 and 17 were able to marry or enter a civil partnership with parental consent.

Why is change needed?

The new laws aim to end coercive or abusive child marriages by stopping those under 18 from being forced to wed under any circumstances.

Currently, forced marriage is only seen as an offence if the person facilitating it uses coercion, such as threats, to pressure someone to marry or if the person lacks the mental capacity to consent to marriage.

In 2021 more than 20 organisations, including charities and women’s rights organisations working to protect women and children, wrote a letter to the prime minister stating that young people were not sufficiently protected.

They warned that previous legislation failed to protect young people as laws allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to marry were being exploited. They also said there was no provision to prevent religious or customary child marriages from taking place at any age. They urged the government to criminalise child marriage, saying it is invisible but ‘thriving’ in the UK.

The letter also talked about the onus on the child to secure their own protection and speak out against their family and community, which can have dangerous consequences.

It’s thought that safeguarding children from forced marriage will increase their opportunities to complete education and personal development, reduce social exclusion and isolation, boost employment opportunities, stop cases of domestic abuse, sexual abuse and ‘honour’ based violence, and prevent complications in pregnancy and childbirth.

How big a problem is child marriage in the UK?

Data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) shows 3,096 marriages involving children aged 16 and 17 were registered in England and Wales between 2007 and 2017. However, these statistics don’t fully reflect the situation as data on non-registered religious or customary child marriages, or those which take place abroad, is not captured. This means child marriage is largely hidden.

In 2020 the UK’s Forced Marriage Unit dealt with 199 cases involving children under 18. This was 26% of their total cases, and 79% of victims and survivors were female from across 54 countries outside of the UK, illustrating the scale of the global problem.

Honour-based abuse charity Karma Nirvana says that since 2017, their national Honour Based Abuse Helpline has responded to over 400 cases relating to child marriage.

The new marriage laws

Under the new laws under 18s will not face penalties for marrying, but adults who facilitate underage weddings (including those who take their children abroad to marry), may be fined and face up to seven years in prison.

The new law applies to all marriages – registered marriages which are recognised under British law and both unregistered and registered religious or customary marriages.

Other possible changes to marriage law in England and Wales

The main law surrounding marriage is decades old, and the government feels it doesn’t reflect modern life. They asked the Law Commission of England and Wales to review legislation due to concerns it isn’t working for many couples.

The Commission published its report on marriage laws in July 2022. The review recommended overhauling the current laws to increase choice for couples (whilst preserving the dignity of weddings and safeguarding religious groups’ practices and rules) and simplifying the legal framework to support and celebrate marriage.

In brief:

  • New laws to give couples more choice over where their wedding is held. The wider range of wedding venues may include outdoor venues such as parks, gardens, beaches and forests. Indoor venues could include community centres, village halls and homes. They also recommended that couples may tie the knot in international waters on UK-registered cruise ships. It’s thought that more options will increase affordability and help reduce the backlog caused by the pandemic
  • Couples should be able to give notice of their intended wedding online, and notices will be published online to make them accessible to the wider community
  • Ceremonies should be more reflective of the couples’ values and beliefs. Regarding religious ceremonies, they recommend that they may take place in a venue other than a place of worship, may be led by an interfaith minister and incorporate religious elements (such as hymns and prayers) into civil ceremonies as long as the ceremony remains civil
  • Options for independent officiants to conduct civil weddings
  • Increase clarity on the consequences for couples who have not complied with the required formalities and fewer weddings conducted that follow religious rites but are not recognised by the law

At the time of writing, the report is under review by the government.

Do you need help with a matter relating to marriage law?

Our experienced team can help with legal issues relating to marriage, including pre-nuptial agreements, matrimonial finances and marriages which are recognised by your faith but not by the law. We can also assist where couples don’t wish to get married or enter a civil partnership but want legal protection as a cohabiting couple.

Call us on 0116 340 0094 or email to find out more.