Family law solicitor Emma Sherrington and Trainee Solicitor Bethany Lodge give insight into the new law which changes the legal age for marriage and civil partnerships in England and Wales.
Anyone under the age of 18 is a child in the eyes of the law in England and Wales. You cannot vote, buy alcohol, do jury service, gamble, or watch certain films. However an area which campaign groups have long considered a concerning anomaly is marriage. Under the existing law governed by the Marriage Act 1949 and the Civil Partnership Act 2004, people in England and Wales can enter into a marriage or civil partnership at 16 years of age with parental or judicial consent. The most recent published data on marriage statistics is from 2018. The Office of National Statistics reported that in 2018, 147 individuals aged 16 or 17 married. This constituted 0.06% of the total 234,795 marriages that took place in 2018 in England and Wales.
This may seem an insignificant figure. However, for some time a range of campaign groups have advocated for the age to marry or enter into a civil partnership to be increased to 18 to try to prevent children being forced into marriages and civil partnerships that they do not want and which may negatively affect their futures. In 2021 the Government Forced Marriage Unit gave advice and support in 118 cases (representing 35% of all of their cases) involving victims of forced marriage who were under the age of 18.
The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022 received Royal Assent on 28th April 2022. The Act increases the minimum age of marriage in England and Wales from 16 years to 18 years. It also applies to cultural or religious marriages that are not registered with the local council. The new law will take effect from Monday 27th February 2023.
Under the new law, if an adult is responsible for encouraging and allowing a marriage of persons under the age of 18, they may be committing a criminal office. This includes any parents who take their children abroad with the intention to carry out a marriage or civil partnership outside of England and Wales. The maximum penalty for such an offence is a substantial fine and up to seven years imprisonment. Any persons under 18 years of age will not be subject to the penalty. However, it should be noted that the new law is not retrospective, and any marriage or civil partnership entered into by people under the age of 18 years before the minimum age was raised will not be affected.
The new law has been readily welcomed as a significant breakthrough for the rights of young people. Prior to receiving Royal Assent, the Bill sailed through Parliament with very little opposition from MPs on both sides of the Chamber. It has been said that raising the minimum age is a step in the right direction to end coercive and abusive child marriages.
It is hoped this new law will empower young people who are at risk, and the new penalties associated with this offence will act as a deterrent for those trying to arrange any marriage or civil partnership for persons under 18 years of age. Conservative MP Pauline Latham who introduced the Bill to Parliament with the support of Labour MP Sarah Champion who had also campaigned to raise the age of consent has said the new law will “transform the life chances of many girls”.
The Law Commission is in the process of reviewing marriage laws more broadly in an attempt to streamline the law with modern life. This includes the prohibition of marrying outdoors or in other unique venues. The Government is also considering how marriage laws in England and Wales could be reformed to work more comprehensively with Sharia Law. The consideration of reform in this area has been welcomed by campaign groups.
It should be noted that the minimum age at which a person can marry or form a civil partnership in Scotland will remain 16 years of age. No parental or judicial consent is required. In Northern Ireland, people can marry or enter into a civil partnership if both are 16 years of age, and if they are under 18 years of age if they have obtained parental or judicial consent. There have been calls for Scotland and Northern Ireland to reform the law on this area to bring it in line with the new law of England and Wales.
To get in touch with us to discuss marriage/civil partnership enquiries, forced marriage protection orders and any child protection matters, please contact us on 0207 608 1227.
Beth Lodge / Emma Sherrington
Trainee Solicitor / Senior Associate