Potted history of marriage and age of consent in the UK

Karen Connor
Karen Connor

Published: March 28th, 2023

7 min read

The law of marriage

Until the middle of the 18th century marriages could take place anywhere provided, they were conducted before an ordained clergyman of the Church of England. This encouraged the practice of secret marriages which did not have parental consent, and which were often bigamous.

Irregular marriages

It also allowed couples, particularly those of wealthy background, to marry while at least one of the partners was underage. The trade in these irregular marriages had grown enormously in London by the 1740s.

In 1753, however, the Marriage Act, promoted by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Hardwicke, declared that all marriage ceremonies must be conducted by a minister in a parish church or chapel of the Church of England to be legally binding.

Parental consent

No marriage of a person under the age of 21 was valid without the consent of parents or guardians. Clergymen who disobeyed the law were liable for 14 years transportation.

Although Jews and Quakers were exempt from the 1753 Act, it required religious non-conformists and Catholics to be married in Anglican churches.

Restrictions removed

This restriction was eventually removed by Parliament in the Marriage Act of 1836 which allowed non-conformists and Catholics to be married in their own places of worship.

It was also made possible for non-religious civil marriages to be held in register offices which were set up in towns and cities.

Minimum age

In 1929, in response to a campaign by the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship, Parliament raised the age limit to 16 for both sexes in the Ages of Marriage Act.

However, the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022 means it is now a crime to exploit vulnerable children by arranging for them to marry under any circumstances, whether or not force was used. The Act raises the age of marriage and civil partnership to 18 in England and Wales to protect children from the scourge of forced marriage.

This means that, since February 26th, 2023, 16 to 17-year-olds are no longer able to marry or enter a civil partnership under any circumstances, including with parental or judicial consent. It is possible for anyone under 18 to marry or enter a civil partnership.

Previously, forced marriage was only an offence if the person used a type of coercion, for example threats, to cause someone to marry, or if the person lacked capacity to consent to marry under the Mental Capacity Act. The Act therefore also expands the criminal offence of forced marriage in England and Wales to make it an offence in all circumstances to do anything intended to cause a child to marry before they turn 18. It is therefore now an offence to cause a child under the age of 18 to enter a marriage in any circumstances, without the need to prove that a form of coercion was used. The forced marriage offence will continue to include ceremonies of marriage which are not legally binding, for example in community or traditional settings.

The Government's forced marriage unit provided advice or support in 118 cases involving victims aged under 18 in 2021.

The Ministry of Justice said the statistics showed forced marriage is more likely to impact girls than boys, with 2018 figures for England and Wales showing that 28 boys married under the age of 18 compared with 119 girls.

Civil partnerships

The Civil Partnership Act 2004, for example, granted civil partnerships to same-sex couples in the United Kingdom with rights and responsibilities identical to civil marriage.

Although the Act was intended to apply only to England and Wales, the devolved Scottish Parliament passed a Legislative Consent Motion which allowed Westminster to legislate on behalf of Scotland.

Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013

In 2013, Parliament passed the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act which introduced civil marriage for same-sex couples in England and Wales. The legislation allowed religious organisations to opt in to marry same-sex couples should they wish to do so and protected religious organisations and their representatives from successful legal challenge if they did not wish to marry same-sex couples. The legislation also enabled civil partners to convert their civil partnership into marriage and transsexual people to change their legal gender without necessarily having to end their existing marriage.

In Scotland, the Scottish Parliament has legislated to allow same-sex marriages. The Northern Ireland Assembly has not legislated to allow the marriage of same-sex couples in Northern Ireland.

The first same-sex marriages in England and Wales took place in March 2014.

Forced Marriage Solicitors

Here at Forbes Solicitors, our Family Law team can assist in getting Forced Marriage Protection Orders to protect those who are in danger of being forced to marry against their will. To find out more about forced marriage and how our solicitors can help you, visit our dedicated forced marriage solicitors page here. To speak to a solicitor regarding forced marriage, get in touch via the contact details below.

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