Your sand in marriage: plans to relax wedding rules in England and Wales

Couples could soon marry on a cruise, in their kitchen or during a day at the beach under proposals to lift current restrictions on where weddings can take place.

In what would be the biggest review of marriage regulations in England and Wales since the 19th century, the Law Commission has recommended that weddings can take place anywhere, provided the presiding officer thinks it is safe and dignified.

The proposed reforms would also potentially widen the range of people who could act as officers to anyone nominated by religious or non-religious organisations, as well as independent officers aged 18 and over. Freelancers will need to apply to be individually registered and demonstrate that they are “fit and proper” persons.

Additionally, for cruise ships with a home port in England and Wales, officers such as the master or senior mate will also be able to conduct a legally recognized ceremony, even in international waters.

Prof Nick Hopkins, the commission’s family law commissioner, said: “The current marriage law is not working for many couples. Unnecessary restrictions and outdated regulations mean that thousands each year are denied a wedding that is meaningful to them.

“Our reforms for the Government are designed to protect the established practices and dignity of weddings, while offering couples more choice about where and how they marry.

“There is widespread precedent for our reforms around the world. By giving couples more control over their weddings and providing greater parity for all faiths, the law can support those who want to marry, rather than putting unnecessary barriers in their way.

Under existing rules, religious weddings must normally take place in a registered place of worship and civil weddings in a registry office or on approved premises or grounds.

Until recently, when civil wedding rules were relaxed, partly in response to Covid, legally binding outdoor ceremonies were limited to Jewish couples, Quakers and, on application, Anglicans.

Under the Law Commission’s proposals, couples would be able to marry on a beach, park or coastal waters without the venue needing a licence. It will also mean that military sites can accept same-sex marriages for the first time.

The commission says its recommendations could dramatically reduce the cost of weddings by giving couples options such as getting married at home or in a garden and removing the need for venues to have a licence, which limits the supply of venues. He also says the increased flexibility could help clear a backlog of weddings caused by restrictions imposed during the coronavirus pandemic.

Greater freedom will also extend to the content of the ceremony such as the vows, rituals and songs chosen. Religious content is currently banned in civil ceremonies, but the commission says the rules should be relaxed to allow, for example, couples who wish to include religious elements for cultural reasons to do so.

In addition, the changes will allow a religious ceremony to be officiated by an interfaith officiant that incorporates aspects of each of the couple’s faiths.

The commission said some couples had two ceremonies, “one that complies with the law and one that reflects their beliefs or values.” Others have a ceremony, sometimes religious, that is not recognized by law.

The commission said the current provisions were unfair and inconsistent, adding: “With very few exceptions, the same rules will apply in our scheme to all weddings.”

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Another recommended change is to remove the “open doors” requirement. The commission said there is a widespread misconception, fueled by movies, that this is to allow for last-minute objections before the swearing-in takes place, but the truth is more prosaic.

“In fact, only certain religious weddings (other than Anglican, Jewish and Quaker) and civil weddings should be open to the public, and this rule is a legacy of 17th-century restrictions on Protestant dissenters gathering for worship,” it said.

Unusual wedding venues

Lusty Glaze Beach in Newquay says it is the only place in Cornwall where couples can legally marry on the sand. Private Cove is also available as a two-hour getaway slot. If the Government accepts the Law Commission’s recommendations, expect to see many more beach weddings in England and Wales.

Manchester’s Victoria Baths was described as “the finest municipal bathing institution in the country” when it opened in 1906. It closed in 1993 but is now an event venue where weddings are held. Under the proposed changes, people could get married in swimming pools that are still open, even in the pool (but probably in the shallow end given the safety requirement).

Brunel’s SS Great Britain, in Bristol, was once the largest ship in the world at just under 100 meters long and is available for couples to get married. However, the ship remains fixed in place permanently, while under the proposed laws the betrothed will literally be able to set sail on their wedding voyage.

Dreamland, in Margate, Kent, believed to be the oldest surviving theme park in the UK, is another potential wedding venue for couples looking to do something out of the ordinary. They – along with guests – can prepare for the honeymoon by riding a roller coaster.

A large conservatory might not sound appealing during the current heatwave, but plant lovers can head to the National Botanic Gardens of Wales for another less traditional option. The greenhouse, which contains the largest collection of Mediterranean plants in the northern hemisphere, is set in 400 acres in the Waun Las National Nature Reserve in Carmarthenshire.

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