Time for a Change for Marriage Law?

Divorce lawyers really shouldn’t blog about weddings: it’s like looking at the view through the wrong end of a telescope.  And yet, here I am, because I can’t resist having my say on John’s blog on the subject

So, let me justify why lawyers should indeed be talking about weddings. One of Scotland's most well known, and well loved, legal academics, Professor Norrie says that “marriage, as an institution, is not a natural phenomenon but is rather a legal structure, and, as such, it is one that is defined artificially by the law.” [1]

Now, my own view is that marriage is not just a legal structure but a human relationship.  I don’t think the legal profession can proceed on the basis that we have a monopoly on conversation, vocabulary or concepts about human relationships. That said, I do think that the law has a clear role in regulating adult relationships - appropriately.

John’s blog was about a couple who made an individual, autonomous commitment to one another in a vacuum of state regulation and, to my mind, it raises the question of whether the authorities should have as strong a role as they currently do in regulating weddings.  After all, much of what happens in a wedding ceremony is intensely personal to the couple and, frankly, no business of the state’s. 

The Law Commission for England and Wales asked itself the same question in 2015, and this is its answer:

“The ceremony is both a public Statement and a private commitment and is surrounded by traditions - both ancient and newly created – that are of considerable significance to the parties themselves.  At the same time, a wedding is a legal transition in which the State has a considerable interest.   Since the marriage will result in a legally binding tie with specific legal consequences, it should be clear when it has come in to being.  The legal recognition of a ceremony requires a measure of scrutiny by the State to ensure that those seeking to marry are legally free to do so and to prevent sham and forced marriages.” [2]

So, I do accept that, at the very least the state has a role to play in checking parties’ eligibility, capacity and consent.  We do want the authorities to protect against sham marriages and against forced marriages.  It is socially useful that the state maintains a record of marriages taking place, since marriage affects the status of an individual and gives rise to the legal rights and obligations.

All of which means that the law has a very practical role to play in marriage formalities but doesn’t justify interference with the personal expression of commitment between the parties.  I don’t see that the state has any role in the aspects of weddings which are about personal meaning. There are *a lot* of laws about weddings: where you can be married, who is automatically a celebrant, who has to apply for a special licence to be a celebrant, what readings can be used at which type of wedding and so on and so on. 

Many of these regulations look to me like the law is treading on ground that ought to belong to the couple. So, maybe, the freedom to have a wedding that includes a long walk, playing the wii and dancing in the back garden shouldn’t be only for lockdown: maybe it should be the goal of law reform.

 [1] Professor Norrie’s article is Marriage is for Heterosexuals: may the rest of us be saved from it (Child & Family Law Quarterly, 12 (4) 363)

 [2] Chapter One, 1.1- 1.2