Wedding bells at 18? The new Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill

Young couples who want to marry at an early age may have to wait a little longer. The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022 received Royal Assent at the end of April and is now an Act of Parliament.

It simply means that the minimum age for marriages and civil partnerships has been raised in England and Wales to 18, up from 16. However, while the age for tying the knot may have gone up in England, it remains at 16 in Scotland.

Young brides and grooms

Before the new bill became law, it was possible for couples aged just 16 and 17 to legally marry or apply for a civil partnership in the UK. The ability to marry at such a young age has been enshrined in law for over 90 years, as long as both bride and groom had the consent of their parents.

The new law replaces the outdated Ages of Marriage Act 1929. While civil partnerships are a much more recent development, the new Act also covers these couplings, meaning that anyone who wants to marry or get a civil partnership will have to wait until their 18th birthday.

Why has the law changed?

The new Act aims to protect young people who may be vulnerable to exploitation, particularly in forced marriages. The law singles out not the young people themselves, who are often the victims in these situations. Instead, it goes after those who may be forcing them into a ‘child marriage’.

It is also an offence to marry two underage individuals, meaning that registrars or ordained religious leaders that knowingly (or unknowingly) perform a marriage ceremony involving underage young individuals could also be prosecuted. This applies to both registered marriages and unregistered ceremonial events. The penalties are severe, with a possibility of up to seven years in prison.

Eloping to Gretna Green? Not any more…

It doesn’t look like the chapel at Gretna Green may see an influx of young couples applying to get married across the border from now on, either. The new law takes into account the prospect of young couples either eloping or being forced to marry in another country. Forcing an underage couple to marry by removing them from the UK carries the same stiff penalties.

Are people still getting married?

According to statistics published in the Church Times, it seems that people are not that keen to marry anyway. The Office For National Statistics has reported that marriage rates are at their lowest since 1862, and religious ceremonies make up just 20% of all marriages. Despite civil ceremonies beating religious ceremonies, even these have dropped off in number over the last couple of years. Among same-sex couples, the option of a religious ceremony has been embraced, with over 22% of those getting married for the first time choosing a religious ceremony.

But what is also interesting is the age at which many people are now choosing to make that commitment, either in a religious ceremony or a civil partnership. In 2018 the average age for opposite-sex couples was 34.3 for men and 32.3 for women. For same-sex couples, the average was 38.1 for men and 33.8 for women.

So is a new piece of legislation needed? Well, the people that this new Act seeks to protect are those who are most vulnerable to forced marriages, regardless of their cultural background. It’s designed to protect young girls and boys from being coerced into a partnership that benefits others rather than themselves.

While the Act specifically avoids punishing the young people involved, its target is those around them that may be forcing these young people into a marriage that neither the groom nor the bride wants. The fact that it makes removing a young person to another country to take advantage of more relaxed legislation surrounding underage marriages also adds another layer of protection. The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill is legislation that will go a long way to stopping forced marriages for good.

Using Experienced Family Solicitors

Contacting a solicitor, particularly with sensitive issues surrounding the family can be daunting and stressful and we make every effort to deal with our clients with empathy and professionalism. We also ensure that our clients have direct access to their legal representatives who will listen to their needs and provide cost-effective legal advice with a supportive approach. All cases are dealt with impartially and with complete confidentiality.

If you’re concerned about the well-being of a young couple or individuals you think may be at risk of forced marriage, you can talk to one of our family solicitors in London in complete confidence by email or call us on 020 8349 0321.

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