The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022 came into force on 27 February 2023. It has made some key changes to marriage law for the under 18s.
What was the old law?
Until recently, those aged between 16 and 18 could marry or enter into a civil partnership provided they had parental consent.
What is the new law?
As of 27 February 2023, it is now illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to marry or enter into a civil partnership. If a marriage or civil partnership is nevertheless conducted where one of the parties is under 18, then it will automatically be considered void.
A void marriage is treated by the courts as though it never happened or never existed. However, a nullity of marriage order will be needed to prove this, especially if one or both parties want to get remarried.
It is also now a criminal offence for a person to do anything intended to cause a child to enter into a marriage before their 18th birthday. This will be considered a forced marriage and will be punishable by a fine or up to seven years in prison. Importantly, ‘marriage’ in this offence includes any religious or civil ceremony of marriage, whether or not it is legally binding.
The offence explicitly says that the conduct does not need to be in the form of violence, threats or coercion, nor does it need to be carried out in England and the UK. However, the perpetrator and the child do have to be habitually resident in England and Wales at the time of the offence, and the marriage also has to have taken place in England and Wales.
The law in Scotland remains that 16-year-olds can marry even without the need for parental consent.
Forced marriages and the criminal law
A forced marriage is where one or both parties do not or cannot consent to the marriage and pressure or abuse is used to force them into the marriage. It now also includes when anything is done to make someone marry before they turn 18, even if there is no pressure or abuse.
Forced marriage is illegal in the UK and is considered a form of domestic abuse.
Whilst the new law gets rid of any “grey areas” (for example, where the parents have consented, but the child doesn’t feel they can really say no to the marriage), there is still a gap: those under the age of 18 can still be forced or coerced into religious marriages. Though forcing a child into marriage would be a criminal offence, the law in England and Wales has no power to declare that religious marriage void. This is a cultural and religious matter
Why has the law changed?
Momentum against child marriage has been building for several years. In 2014, the UK Government hosted the Girl Summit: A future free from FGM and child and forced marriage, where it pledged to end child marriage in a generation. Shortly after, the UK co-sponsored a UN Human Rights Council resolution to recognise child marriage as a human rights violation. In 2016, the UN pledged to end global child marriage by 2030 and in the same year, UNICEF and UNFPA (the UN Population Fund) began a joint campaign to address child marriage. And yet, the law in England and Wales still allowed a child to marry where the parents agreed.
Research shows that those who marry under 18 are more likely to leave education, suffer domestic abuse and suffer mental health problems. The most common situation is a young bride with a much older husband, who has been coerced into the marriage by her parents and wider family. Often these marriages will not necessarily be legally recognised but do still hold religious importance and are recognised by the couple’s community. Although ONS figures for child marriage are low (in 2019, 28 teenage boys and 111 teenage girls were married), the statistics don’t include these religious or cultural ceremonies. If they had been included, the figures are expected to be much higher.
Long awaited, the new law is a great move forward in addressing child marriage in England and Wales and ensures that the UK Government is acting in line with its pledges on the topic.
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