Newcastle-based Stowe Partner, Nicky Hunter, explains the overdue changes to marriage law in England and Wales, including the new criminal offenses and the reasons why the law has changed after almost 75 years.
Law raising age of marriage to 18 comes into force in England and Wales
Today marks a historic day in the safeguarding of children and young people, as the new law raising the minimum age someone can legally marry to 18 has come into force today in England and Wales, having received royal assent last April.
The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022 has finally ended the archaic law in England and Wales that has allowed children aged 16 and 17 to be married, with the consent of their parents, even though they are legally considered to be children.
Why has the marriage law changed?
The Marriage Act 1949, which was in place up until today, legitimised child marriage in England and Wales. The mechanism of parental consent which existed under this law, whilst originally intended to be a safeguard against child marriage has, in reality, proved in many cases to be a vehicle for parental abuse.
Campaigners have long argued that the existing law has allowed children between the ages of 16-18 to be coerced into marriage without their consent and against their best interests, pointing to many cases where young people have been subjected to domestic abuse, some suffering lifelong harms, as well as losing opportunities for education, employments and personal growth and independence.
By raising the minimum legal age of marriage to 18, the UK is finally stepping out of the environment which allows parents to force their children to marry.
The full scope of the new marriage law
The new law has made it an offence for a person to aid, abet or encourage any child under 18 to enter into any form of marriage. Furthermore, it will make it a criminal offence for a responsible person, i.e. a parent or guardian, to fail to protect a child from entering into any form of marriage. The law applies to religious and cultural marriages, as well as those registered with the local authority.
These offences will now be punishable by up to seven years in prison.
This is a powerful move that will work to safeguard young people and prevent parents or guardians from abusing their positions as responsible adults and forcing children into underage marriages.
Child marriage, a global issue
In 2016, UNICEF and the UN population fund launched a joint initiative to tackle the problem of child marriage globally. Whilst funding has been forthcoming from the UK, the law which allowed child marriage in our own country has not been addressed until recently.
With the implementation of the new law, Parliament is finally living up to its international obligations to stop underage marriage and remove the inconsistencies in its approach to tackling it as a global issue.
This is a truly positive step in the right direction, and we hope to see more action taken to protect the future of young people, particularly girls, in England and Wales. However, it is important to note that the minimum age of marriage remains 16 in Scotland and Northern Ireland and in Northern Ireland parental consent is required under the age of 18, but not in Scotland.