Since working in London I have been consulted by a number of clients who have undergone solely religious marriages that were never been officially registered, only to find out later, when the relationship breaks down, that the marriage is therefore not legally recognised.
The ceremonies in question took place in England. The legal situation with religious marriages conducted abroad is a little different: they may well be recognised here.
This area of law is governed by the Marriage Act, which came into force in 1949, making it just under 70 years old, so there is a big question mark over whether this needs to be updated.
Most of the religious marriages I have seen which fall into this category are Muslim marriages. The resulting legal limbo can have serious consequences: they can be left financially vulnerable without any of the entitlements of an official marriage as the wives cannot rely upon the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. This may mean they are left without a home, income, pension or any rights of inheritance.
In English law, cohabitation confers no legal rights, so these individuals can therefore be left in very difficult circumstances, particularly if they have not made any financial contribution to the ‘family home’ for example.
There is a lot of moral debate as to whether it would be appropriate for a Muslim marriage to be automatically recognised in England. Could this encourage the acceptance of other practices which are not legal in England, for example polygamy?
It should be noted that some religious marriages are recognised, raising the possibility of discrimination. For example, if you are an Anglican you can get married in a church in England and you do not have to give notice or register at a register office (although, do note that the situation may be different if you are not from England or Wales). The officials performing the Anglican marriage will register the marriage for you.
If you are having a Jewish or Quaker marriage you do need to give notice at the register office at least 28 days before the ceremony, but the official conducting the ceremony will register the marriage for you.
But participants in non-Anglican and all other religious marriages in England must give at least 28 days’ notice at the register office and register the marriage. It is possible for other religious officials to register marriage ceremonies on your behalf, but this is it not automatic and it is your duty to make sure the registration goes ahead.
So should all marriages be registered via the civil process, without exception? This could leave more individuals vulnerable but on the other hand, the same process for everyone could increase awareness.
If you had a solely religious marriage or are planning one in England and are unsure whether it will be recognised, it is important that you seek legal advice as soon as possible.