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The problem of unregistered faith marriages

I wrote here just yesterday about a case in which a man was trying to show that a marriage that he was alleged to have entered into in Nigeria did not, in fact, take place. Obviously, the issue was of considerable importance, not least because if there had not been a marriage then the ‘wife’ could not have got a divorce, and could not, therefore, have made any financial claims against the man within those divorce proceedings.

But what if the parties do actually go through a marriage ceremony? Surely, then, it is clear that there is a valid marriage, and that therefore financial claims can be made in any future divorce proceedings?

Well, not necessarily. Many couples go through marriage ceremonies in England and Wales that are not recognised by the law.

The inevitable result of this is that if those marriages break down the spouses, in particular, the wives, are left without the ability to make financial claims on divorce. That, in turn, means that many of those spouses are left in dire financial straits, and even homeless.

Register Our Marriage campaign

These issues were highlighted last week in an article on the Law Society’s website, by Siddique Patel, a solicitor specialising in Islamic family law. Siddique is Deputy Director of Register Our Marriage, an organisation campaigning to raise awareness of the issue and to ensure that all religious marriages are legally registered to protect the family unit.

Surely, it cannot be right that someone who believes themselves to be married, and who has made exactly the same commitment, is not protected by the law? I realise that to be a valid marriage entered into in this country must comply with certain formalities, but surely, in this multicultural society, we can find a way around that issue?

It also does not make any logical sense that certain faith marriages are not recognised. After all, the Church of England, Jewish and Quaker marriages entered into in this country are recognised. Why not Muslim, Catholic or Sikh marriages? I know that it is possible for the religious places of these faiths to be registered as places for the performance of marriages, but most of them are not. If we have a system whereby marriages can be ‘faith marriages’ not just civil marriages, then why treat some faiths differently?

And the other logical absurdity is that English law can recognise foreign marriages that have not complied with our formalities. Foreign marriages will be recognised by English law if they comply with the law of the country where they took place. Surely, if (for example) a Muslim marriage entered into abroad is recognised, shouldn’t a Muslim marriage entered into in this country also be recognised?

Basic protection of cohabitees’ rights

I don’t know whether the campaign to register faith marriages will gain traction. Hopefully, it will, and all marriages will be treated equally by the law. However, before I end I should mention one other possibility, which would provide those who have entered into an unregistered faith marriage at least a degree of protection.

I am talking about basic property rights for cohabitees. It really is about time that this long-awaited reform was enacted. Those who have devoted a significant part of their lives to a cohabiting relationship should have some measure of financial protection if the relationship breaks down, as the Law Commission recommended as far back as 2007. We are not talking about giving cohabitees the same rights as married couples – the level of financial protection proposed for cohabitees falls far short of that presently available on divorce. However, if we had basic property rights for cohabitees then at least who entered into an unregistered faith marriage would have some protection, even if it is not what they should have.

You can find out more about the Register Our Marriage campaign on its website, here.

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers, with his content now supporting our divorce lawyers and child custody lawyers

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  1. spinner says:

    “Surely, it cannot be right that someone who believes themselves to be married, and who has made exactly the same commitment, is not protected by the law?” – They haven’t made exactly the same commitment as they haven’t legally registered themselves as married, it’s not that complicated. Different people make different types of commitment to each other, that’s called individual choice and freedom, some may have some religious significance while others don’t. Some people choose to invite the state into their personal relationship by registering their relationship as a marriage which is their free choice.

    You are also clearly ignoring the obvious issue here which is that some people like to have multiple wives or husbands as within their culture it’s acceptable whereas currently in the UK you can only have one husband or wife. So if you are going to automatically assume people who go through some kind of ceremony as being legally married surely you will also need to legally prosecute those who take more than one wife or husband.

    Please leave people alone to live their lives as they see fit. They are not living your life and what may suit you is unlikely to suit them.

  2. Andrew says:

    The Marriage Acts require that everyone who ants to marry in this jurisdiction signs a document (under criminal penalties if it is untrue) saying that s/he is free to marry in the sense of the law of this jurisdiction – not within the prohibited degrees and not already married. That is proper to expect of anyone seeking to marry here.

    The Acts also have the effect that every marriage here leads to a certificate in common form in the English language, or in English and Welsh if it is in Wales, and familiar to HMRC, the courts, the Passport Office, and indeed foreign consulates in the UK. That is no mean advantage. I have some professional experience of religious non-marriages and if there is a certificate at all there is no real way any of those bodies can judge of its authenticity even if it is in English – which it often is not.

    Jews, Quakers, Catholics, Nonconformists have all been able to merge their customs with the requirements of the Marriage Acts and there is no reason why Muslims and Hindus – and it is overwhelmingly among them that the problem arises – cannot do so too. They can marry before the Registrar and then have a religious ceremony; they can register their buildings for marriage; then can appoint celebrants. But if they choose not to engage with civil society to that extent they cannot expect to have their marriages recognised by civil society.

    Oh, and spinner is right. If people choose to cohabit without marriage it is wrong to play “let’s pretend” when the relationship breaks up and give one – at the expense of the other – the rights s/he would have had if they had made a different choice.

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