Weddings, like so many other aspects of life, have been profoundly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. For the months of lockdown, the vast majority of weddings were effectively prevented from taking place at all, and in August 2020 the Office for National Statistics estimated that this would have resulted in 73,400 weddings in England having to be postponed.Footnote 1 Even once lockdown was eased,Footnote 2 restrictions on weddings continued for some time. As a result, many more couples who were planning to marry in the second half of 2020 will also have deferred getting married, either because of their uncertainty as to whether they would be able to do so on their intended date, or because of their certainty that they would not be able to have the ceremony they wanted.
Despite popular references to a ‘ban’ on weddings,Footnote 3 it should be noted that there was never any specific prohibition on weddings as such. Confusion on this point may have been created by Boris Johnson's mention of weddings in his announcement on 23 March when he declared that the Government would ‘stop all social events, including weddings, baptisms and other ceremonies’.Footnote 4 This, however, was intended as an example of the impact of the wider measures being proposed rather than indicating a specific ban. Those wider measures did effectively make it impossible for most weddings to go ahead. Places of worship were required to close except when conducting funerals or broadcasting an act of worship.Footnote 5 Many approved premises – venues such as hotels and stately homes where marriages can take place – were also required to close as a result of the pandemic.Footnote 6 And the restrictions on movementFootnote 7 and on gatherings of more than two peopleFootnote 8 posed an obvious obstacle to ceremonies taking place, even if the number attending were reduced to the legal minimum.
A few weddings, however, were able to take place both before and during lockdown.Footnote 9 The fact that this was easier for some than for others highlighted some of the long-standing anomalies within the laws governing marriage. As the Law Commission has pointed out in its recent consultation paper, these laws are ‘an ancient and complex hodgepodge of different rules for different types of ceremonies’,Footnote 10 preventing many couples from celebrating their entry into marriage in a form that is meaningful to them. The circumstances of Covid-19 meant that the impact of even minor legal differences became magnified, and sometimes determined whether couples could marry at all. The difficulties that many couples faced in marrying after lockdown further served to illustrate the complexity and antiquity of marriage law. The ease or speed with which couples could marry – and the cost of doing so – depended not merely on the national restrictions in place, or even on local conditions, but on their chosen route into marriage.
The restrictions on weddings taking place also revealed the extent to which couples valued getting married as opposed to having a wedding. There is, of course, a vast body of scholarship on why and how couples get married,Footnote 11 as well as on what couples do if they have no way of formalising their relationship,Footnote 12 and on how not all options for getting married are available to all couples.Footnote 13 But in practice most couples have not previously had to choose between marriage as a change of legal (and potentially social) status, as a public declaration by a couple of their love for each other, and as a celebration with family, friends, and the wider community, marked by the religious rites or social rituals of their choosing.Footnote 14 In 2020, however, tens of thousands of couples were forced to choose between the legal and the celebratory aspects of marriage.
Our aim in this paper is not to delve into the minutiae of the specific (and frequently changing) regulations and guidance about when weddings could take place in 2020, but rather to explore these broader issues about the legal regulation of marriage and its meaning to couples today, as brought into stark relief by the pandemic. In order to do so, we draw on the findings of a survey that we carried out in the summer of 2020. This focused on couples whose plans to marry in England and Wales had been affected by Covid-19, whether they had married earlier than they had planned, had been unable to marry during lockdown, had altered or postponed their post-lockdown ceremonies, or decided to marry because of the pandemic.Footnote 15 In total we received 1,449 responses, each answering between two and 16 questions.Footnote 16 Almost half of the respondents also availed themselves of the opportunity to vent their feelings by answering an open question at the end of the survey inviting them to include anything else that they wanted to say about how Covid-19 had affected their wedding plans. Over 45,000 words of text were generated by this last question alone, providing particularly rich insights into respondents’ feelings about getting married and their perceptions of the law.
Understanding both the social and the legal dimension of marriages is important in informing recommendations as to how the law should be changed in the future, not merely to deal with similar crises but also to ensure that the general law of marriage is fit for purpose in the twenty-first century. In the final section we turn to this issue and consider the implications of our findings for the provisional proposals for reform set out in the Law Commission's consultation paper on weddings law, which was published in September 2020.Footnote 17 The Commission's project on reforms to weddings law had begun in July 2019, having been preceded by a scoping paper in 2015.Footnote 18 Its aim was to ‘provide recommendations for a reformed law of weddings that allows for greater choice within a simple, fair and consistent legal structure’.Footnote 19 The resulting Consultation Paper, the majority of which was drafted before the public health emergency,Footnote 20 proposed replacing the current regime – which consists of a confused mix of buildings-based regulation and specific rules for religious groups – with a system of regulation focusing on an officiant. Publication of the Consultation Paper was delayed because of the pandemic, enabling the Commission to include consideration of what further measures might need to be put in place during any future crisis. Our focus here will be on how our empirical evidence underlines the need for both general reform and specific measures to ensure that it is always possible for marriages to take place in some form.
Before exploring our findings, however, we will describe how the data was gathered, and discuss the validity of our sample.
1. Gathering the data
Our focus on those who had been planning to marry in England and Wales was intended to align with the Law Commission's Weddings project.Footnote 21 As the affected population was geographically dispersed, and we had no practicable means of identifying all its members, we decided to employ convenience sampling, and promote the survey on social media. In addition to putting out calls on Facebook and Twitter,Footnote 22 we were given approval to use our existing contacts, some of whom are in wedding-related professions, and to approach the gatekeepers of some websites and Facebook groups for brides- and grooms-to-be. These more targeted approaches added an element of purposive sampling, and the latter in particular proved extremely fruitful: we received hundreds of responses in 24 hours when the moderators of some of the Facebook groups posted messages in their own right.
The survey was open between 30 July and 31 August 2020. During this time the guidance about wedding receptions changed again,Footnote 23 but while this undoubtedly added to the sense of uncertainty articulated by our respondents it did not directly affect any of the questions we asked. Calculated as a percentage of the total number of couples affected,Footnote 24 the 1,449 usable responsesFootnote 25 we received would represent a very small response rate.Footnote 26 Absolute sample size is, however, more important than relative sample size, and even 1,000 individuals would be regarded as a valid sample for the whole population of the UK.Footnote 27 YouGov, for example, usually has samples of 1,500 or 2,000 respondents.Footnote 28 Our data can therefore be regarded as constituting a statistically valid sample.
It is also safe to assume that our sample is reasonably representative of those who would have married in 2020. While those aged over 45 are less likely to use the internet for social messaging than those in younger age groups, and so may have been less likely to see and respond to our survey, the percentage of marriages within this group is also lower.Footnote 29 The responses as to how couples were planning to marry closely matched national-level statistics on how couples have married in recent years, with 73.9% reporting that they had originally planned to marry in a civil ceremony in a register office or on approved premises,Footnote 30 21.3% in an Anglican ceremony, 4.5% in a ‘registered place of worship’, and 0.2% according to Jewish usages.Footnote 31
The responses to the survey demonstrated the impact not just of the pandemic but also the uncertainty engendered by the changing regulations on when weddings (and wedding receptions) could take place. Of our 1,449 respondents, 625 had been unable to marry on their intended wedding date as it fell during the period of lockdown:Footnote 32 of these, 10 managed to bring the date forward and marry before the start of lockdown, while 615 (‘the lockdown group’) had to postpone their plans. A further 793 couples (‘the post-lockdown group’) had been planning to marry between the end of lockdown and the end of 2020 and had had to change their plans in some way, whether by changing the month, year, day of the week, or time of day of their wedding, or the venue, the type of wedding ceremony, or the number of guests. The remaining 31 had either been prompted to marry in England and Wales on account of Covid-19,Footnote 33 or, more sadly, had decided to postpone their wedding indefinitely, were no longer planning to marry, or were unable to marry.Footnote 34
It should be noted that our call for participants specifically invited responses from those whose plans to marry in England and Wales had been affected by Covid-19. It is thus of some significance that the ways in which the post-lockdown group had been planning to marry differed only marginally from those of the lockdown group. The only discernible difference was that the percentage reporting that they had originally been planning to marry in a register office was slightly lower among post-lockdown group: 9.2% as compared to 12.0%. This was only to be expected, as register office weddings are often smaller and so were less likely to be affected by the post-lockdown restrictions on numbers. However, even some of the post-lockdown group who had been planning to marry in a register office with just two witnesses reported that their plans had been disrupted, if only by needing to postpone their ceremonies. The conclusion is that the pandemic affected all types of weddings.
As the next section will show, however, the precise impact was different for different types of weddings.
2. Navigating the complexities of marriage law
The rules governing how and where couples can get married in England and Wales are not always easy to navigate even at the best of times. But the pandemic has served to highlight some of the more fundamental structural problems with those rules, and how they differ depending on whether the marriage is civil or religious, and, if the latter, whether it is Anglican, Jewish, Quaker, or conducted in a registered place of worship. The findings of our survey illustrated how couples’ experiences were affected by the type of wedding that they were hoping to have. Here we will primarily be drawing on the qualitative evidence from the final open question, which respondents used to identify particular obstacles that they had faced, along with media reports of weddings during the period.
(a) Whether couples are limited to marrying in a particular parish or district
The first consideration for many couples will be where their wedding takes place, and it is therefore convenient to consider these rules first as they in turn may affect the preliminaries that will need to be completed.Footnote 35 Couples marrying in a civil ceremony can do so in any register office or at approved premises in England and Wales, and are not limited to marrying in the registration district in which either or both of them live.Footnote 36 Quaker and Jewish marriages are similarly unlimited as to location. Those marrying in a registered place of worship – that is, a building where any religious group habitually worships that has been specifically registered as a place where weddings can be solemnised – are generally limited to buildings located in the district where they live, although provision is also made for them to marry in the nearest such place if there is none in the district, or for them to marry in their usual place of worship.Footnote 37 Those wishing to marry in an Anglican church, however, must either live in the parish, be regular worshippers at that church, or establish a ‘qualifying connection’.Footnote 38 There are various ways to establish such a connection, but where the couple have no pre-existing link with the church the only option is to attend services there for not less than six months.Footnote 39
Those hoping to marry in a particular Anglican church by attending services there were particularly affected by the lockdown. As one noted, ‘services are being hosted online which doesn't count towards us making a connection’. Another reported ‘6 weeks of panic’ and being told that they would not be able to marry in the church as they did not qualify. A third had been halfway through their required number of attendances when the church was closed; the result was that they did not have time to establish a connection and have the banns read in time for their planned summer wedding, and opted for a civil ceremony instead, ‘with a church blessing service next spring if restrictions allow’.
(b) The preliminaries required before a wedding can go ahead
No wedding can take place until certain preliminary formalities have been completed. For couples who are planning to marry in an Anglican church, the most common form of preliminaries is banns, which must generallyFootnote 40 be read aloud in the church(es) in the parish(es) where they live – and (if different) the church in which they intend to marry – on three Sundays before the wedding.Footnote 41 Those marrying in any secular or religious venue other than an Anglican church must give formal notice of their intention to marry at the registration office for the district(s) in which they live.Footnote 42 Printed or electronic notices must then be displayed for a minimum period of 28 days. If, during that period, no one objects to the proposed wedding, the couple are issued with a superintendent registrar's certificate that is valid for one year.
Our findings highlighted the inflexibility of these preliminaries, and showed how the differences between Anglican and civil preliminaries could be either an advantage or a disadvantage at different times during the pandemic. A significant advantage for those marrying in an Anglican church is that there are two alternative preliminaries to banns. Any couple can apply for a common licence from the Diocesan Registrar who covers the parish where they intend to marry; this requires the production of some documents and a personal meeting. In certain circumstances, some couples can obtain a special licence from the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the period immediately before lockdown, the speed with which either type of licence could be obtained was a distinct advantage. Of the 10 respondents who had brought their weddings forward to ensure that they could get married before lockdown, six were able to do so because their notices of marriage had already been displayed for the requisite period or their banns had already been called. Of the four who obtained authorisation to marry quickly, one had obtained a Registrar General's licence, which, since it is limited to cases in which a person is seriously ill and not expected to recover, indicated a particularly tragic reason for speed.Footnote 43 The other three, however, were all marrying in Anglican churches by virtue of either a common or special licence.Footnote 44 For any couple who had not already given notice of their intention to marry in a non-Anglican ceremony, there would have to have been a 29-day wait between doing so and the authority to marry being issued – a period that significantly exceeded anyone's inkling that the impending lockdown would be so comprehensive.Footnote 45
During the period of lockdown, the differential provision for Anglican and other ceremonies became even more pronounced. The Church of England's Faculty Office, which is responsible for granting special licences on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury, rose to the occasion and did everything it could to facilitate marriages taking place where that could be achieved within the guidelines, or where an individual was terminally ill. It provided clear and helpful advice on its website,Footnote 46 including telephone numbers for those involved in considering applications to be contacted directly, created a new online application form,Footnote 47 and allowed copies of documents to be submitted electronically. As it subsequently noted, it issued 104 special licences between 23 March and 4 July 2020 alone in order to enable the marriages of those who were terminally ill, or who had a close family member who was terminally ill, whereas it would normally issue only 40 for this purpose in a whole year.Footnote 48 Marriages conducted under the auspices of a special licence included that of a terminally ill man, who married in his garden,Footnote 49 and a doctor and nurse who married in the chapel of the hospital where they worked.Footnote 50 This latter marriage was possible within the terms of the regulations because those concerned were working together in a ‘front-line’ NHS hospital, and no one could begrudge such a couple getting married. But this should not obscure the fact that couples wishing to marry in a non-Anglican ceremony would not have had the option of doing so.
This is because a Registrar General's licence is far more limited in what it can authorise. The Registrar General must be satisfied that ‘one of the persons to be married is seriously ill and not expected to recover and cannot be moved to a place at which under the provisions of the Marriage Act 1949 the marriage could be solemnised’.Footnote 51 A certificate from a registered medical practitioner will generally be necessary to establish that this condition is satisfied and that ‘the person in respect of whom such conditions are satisfied is able to and does understand the nature and purport of the marriage ceremony’.Footnote 52 A newspaper report of marriages taking place by this route underlined that it was only available for those who were terminally ill.Footnote 53
Those needing to marry by Registrar General's licence would also have had far more difficulty in tracking down the information explaining what they needed to do. Since applications for such licences are not made directly to the Registrar General, but rather to the superintendent registrar for the district in which the person seeking the licence is resident, individuals were dependent on the quality of information provided by their local authority. A survey of 169 websites conducted on 2 April 2020, shortly after lockdown had begun, found that the vast majority of local authorities were simply stating that they were not conducting wedding ceremonies because of Covid-19. A few made reference to the existence of special provisions for those who were ill, but only as part of their general advice rather than as a specific response to the crisis.Footnote 54 Significantly, the number of marriages conducted on the basis of a Registrar General's licence was actually lower in the first three quarters of 2020 than it had been for the corresponding period in 2019: 375 as compared to 503.Footnote 55
As the period of lockdown drew to a close, those who were marrying in a civil ceremony, or non-Anglican religious ceremony, and had not completed the necessary preliminaries before lockdown, faced the worry of when they would be able to give notice. The closure of register offices throughout lockdown and beyond, and the lack of any option for giving notice remotely,Footnote 56 meant that couples simply had to wait until they could get an appointment. One respondent had been planning to get married in England on 1 August 2020, almost a month after weddings were permitted to take place, but reported that they had had to postpone ‘due to the council offices taking a long time, after lifts of lockdown’. Several others reported similar difficulties in giving notice, and one, a former registrar, expressed the hope that this would prompt the General Register Office and local government to ‘digitise’ and ‘modernise’ the ‘archaic’ registration services.
The lack of facilities for giving notice may be why even some couples who had been planning to marry in a register office with just two witnesses had to change the dates of their weddings. While this group was small (just eight respondents), half reported that they had had to postpone getting married to 2021, and one did not yet have a date for their rescheduled ceremony. Alternatively, it may have been that the register office no longer had capacity to conduct their wedding on the intended day and had to reschedule it.Footnote 57
In other respects, it was couples who were marrying after Anglican preliminaries who were at something of a disadvantage, because the authority to marry is valid for a much shorter period. A couple have to marry within three months of the banns being called or of a common licence being granted.Footnote 58 For those who had already had their banns called before lockdown, or obtained a common or special licence, the lapse of time between the start of lockdown and the opening up of places of worship for weddings meant that the authority to marry would inevitably have lapsed and that the couple would therefore need to go through the process again.
The Church of England advised clergy that this could lead to some couples requiring a common or special licence in order to marry on their planned date, but acknowledged that others might choose to postpone their weddings.Footnote 59 One respondent said that the church had advised them as to the possibility of a common licence; this particular couple, however, also had to establish a qualifying connection by attending services at the church so would either have needed to obtain a special licence to obviate the need for such a connection or have established their connection before applying for a common licence. Perhaps understandably, they had chosen to postpone their wedding to August 2021. While the Church of England's guidance also advised that the statutory fees would not be payable if a couple decided to cancel their wedding, and must be refunded in full if they had already been paid,Footnote 60 a number of couples did have to pay for the banns to be called again. The number reporting having done so was, however, considerably smaller than the number who had had to pay to give notice again in advance of a planned ceremony elsewhere.Footnote 61
With a superintendent registrar's certificate being valid for a full year, those who had already given notice of their intention to marry in a non-Anglican ceremony should in principle have been able to marry as soon as the wedding could be rearranged after restrictions were lifted. Nonetheless, a common complaint among couples was that their notices had expired, or would have expired by the date of the rearranged wedding. This was to some degree a reflection of how the uncertainty as to when weddings would be able to take place had led couples to postpone by many months to when they assumed it would be possible to marry. It also reflected how far in advance many couples had given notice, indicating that this is not something that tends to be left to the last moment.
For those who were required to give notice again, a particular complaint was being required to pay to do so. There was a lack of consistency on this between local authorities, confirming earlier research on the extent to which the interpretation and application of other rules governing weddings differs between different authorities.Footnote 62 A few respondents expressed their gratitude that their councils had decided not to charge them for a second set of notices, clearly aware that others had not been so lucky. One said that they had written to their local MP to question the legitimacy of being asked to pay again; the advice they received was that this was now not required, but, as they noted, ‘there are a lot of conflicting messages out there and there doesn't seem to be any consistency in approach’. Others who had had to pay twice expressed their disappointment and sense of unfairness at being asked to pay again. In total, 203 respondents reported that the cost of the wedding had increased because there was a fee for reissuing their notices of intention to marry,Footnote 63 and a number of others were still uncertain as to whether they would be required to pay again. The variability in practice between local authorities was further underlined by different sums mentioned; since the fee for giving notice is set by statute, it should have been no more than £35, or £70 for the couple.Footnote 64 In some cases the couple may have misremembered the amount, or misunderstood what the fee was for, but in other cases a higher sum reported most likely reflected an additional fee.Footnote 65
For those who were subject to immigration control, giving notice again was even more complicated. One pointed out that it would cause them a significant delay: as they were marrying someone who wasn't from the UK originally, ‘giving notice can take up to 70 days for us’.Footnote 66 Another particularly irate respondent complained that they had had ‘little information or contact despite having to pay our local council over 800 pounds so far between original fees, notices, and change fees/new notices’; they also commented that they had been ‘watching the chicanery of changing what the fees are and who they apply to on their coronavirus updates pages’.
A third, who was planning to marry in an Anglican church, noted that resubmitting their notice of marriage meant ‘taking annual leave again for 8+ days to stay in our parish’, with the cost of staying in a hotel being added to the cost of the notice. While they did not specify that this was because of immigration requirements, it is unlikely that they would have chosen this route had they been able to avail themselves of the Anglican preliminaries.Footnote 67 The combination of facts suggests that they were not a ‘relevant national’Footnote 68 for the purposes of immigration law but were exempt from immigration control,Footnote 69 and that they had qualified to marry in that particular church on a basis other than residence or it being their usual place of worship.Footnote 70 In such circumstances, the only way in which they could marry in their chosen church was to live in the parish for seven days before giving notice.Footnote 71 The case is a particularly complex example of the absurdities that can arise on account of the intersection of different rules passed at different times for different purposes. More broadly, it is difficult to see what purpose was served by this period of residence, or indeed by displaying this couple's notice of marriage in a district where they did not live.Footnote 72
Many couples whose notices had not expired needed to get them amended because of a change as to the venue. A superintendent registrar's certificate authorises a wedding to go ahead only in a specified location, and the marriage is void if the parties knowingly and wilfully marry anywhere else.Footnote 73 A significant number of couples had changed where they were planning to marry, either because their original venue was not available on their rearranged date (or, in some cases, no longer existed) or because it was unable to accommodate social distancing. This was the case for 12% of those marrying other than according to Anglican rites, all of whom would have been required to give notice.Footnote 74
(c) Venues and essential officials
The fact that weddings cannot generally take place outdoorsFootnote 75 was one of the reasons why restrictions on marriages taking place in England and Wales were lifted later than they were in Northern Ireland.Footnote 76 There are indications that the ability to marry outdoors would have helped weddings to go ahead safely rather than being postponed. One respondent who had always been planning to marry outdoors happily reported that they had been lucky in being able to go ahead on their intended day, if not with all of their intended guests, and that guests had not been required to wear masks. Another had switched to an outdoor location at their original venue, which also meant that they did not have to change the notice of marriage. However, even some of those who had been going to have an outdoor wedding found that this could not necessarily go ahead as planned.Footnote 77 One couple had booked their wedding at a venue where the ‘approved premises’ consisted of a pagoda in the garden. However, its small size meant that it was not possible for six people – the two registration officers, the couple, and their two witnesses – to stand under it while being the required two metres apart. The insistence that all six would have to be under the pagoda ‘for it to be legal’ is likely to strike couples as somewhat farcical at the best of times; in this case, it meant that the wedding had to take place in a room inside the main building, which would have put those attending at greater risk of transmission.
The need for two registration officials to be present at this ceremony highlighted another anomaly. While lockdown restrictions were still in place, an online petition asked for weddings to be able to go ahead with only five persons present – the couple, two witnesses, and the registrar.Footnote 78 The signatories were perhaps not aware that this had different implications for different types of weddings. For Anglican, Jewish and Quaker weddings, and for some weddings in registered places of worship, it would simply have been a matter of amending the restrictions in the emergency regulations on the number of persons who could meet. But for civil weddings, and any weddings in registered places of worship that had to be conducted in the presence of a registrar, it would have been necessary to make amendments to primary legislation about how weddings are conducted.
These significantly different legal processes are needed to achieve similar outcomes because the requirements as to who needs to be present to conduct the ceremony, and who needs to be present in order to register it, differ depending on the type of wedding in issue. Anglican weddings are the most straightforward in this regard, being conducted and registered by the same person.Footnote 79 Jewish and Quaker weddings are more complex, but the statute does not specifically require weddings conducted according to such usages to be solemnised in the presence of any person, the focus of regulation being on who is responsible for registering the marriage.Footnote 80 This designated person is simply required to satisfy themselves that the wedding was conducted according to Quaker or Jewish usages before registering it.Footnote 81 Weddings in registered places of worship need only be solemnised in the presence of an authorised person; if no such person is present, they will need to be conducted in the presence of a civil registrar, who will usually be there in addition to the minister, priest or imam conducting the wedding.Footnote 82 All civil weddings require the presence of both a superintendent registrar and a registrar.Footnote 83
While none of the respondents to the survey drew attention to this specifically – probably because none was aware of it – a number did identify the difficulties that they had experienced in booking (or rebooking) a ceremony with a registrar, in the light of the backlog of ceremonies that councils were dealing with. It is likely that this backlog could have been dealt with more quickly had it not been necessary for two registration officials to attend every civil wedding. One commented that their county council was ‘still not letting new couples book a ceremony despite it now being over 2 months since ceremonies were allowed’. Another, whose wedding had not been able to go ahead in late June, said that they ‘were made to feel like an inconvenience and not allowed to rebook until September’. Others reported the stress and sadness of waiting to see if they could book a ceremony, while one reported that it was ‘still not possible to book a wedding that will take place this year in our county’.
3. Getting married and having a wedding
That the individuals who responded to the survey attached considerable importance to their weddings, and wanted to express their unhappiness about the way in which their plans had been affected, is understandable. What needs to be understood in formulating policy for emergencies is why their wedding was important to them. Our focus here is not on why they had decided to get married at all, or on the details of what they had planned for their wedding, but rather to highlight how the impact of the restrictions differed depending on whether the couple's main desire was to get married or to have a wedding.
For a small number of respondents, the wedding was important as a beginning. A few said that they would not live together without being married. One had brought their wedding forward (with the aid of a common licence) to ensure that they would not be separated during lockdown. Another reported sadly that ‘having to postpone our wedding a year has meant another year apart from each other’; for them, being married in the presence of their loved ones was just as important as getting married, and the 30-person limit on attendees would have required them to select only a few people from their large family. A third expressed their ‘shock that it was illegal to get married in England with no provision for even the smallest ceremony with the legal number of witnesses’ and was clear that ‘[f]or us this is the most significant change in our life and we honour God by marrying. I didn't want to have my ceremony filmed I didn't mind that other people wouldn't have been able to make it, I just wanted to get married’.
A few more respondents said that they wanted to be married before starting a family. One of those who had not previously been planning to marry in 2020 had used the pandemic as the excuse for the ‘small and intimate wedding’ that both had wanted all along. Another, who was pregnant but had become unable to marry when planned, commented that ‘due to the coronavirus our baby will now be born out of wedlock’. Others said that their plans for starting a family were on hold, with many adding that this was taking a toll on them in terms of the stress, anxiety, and emotional impact.
For some, the reasons for wanting to marry were legal, rather than religious or personal. These respondents were not necessarily marrying for pragmatic reasons;Footnote 84 rather, these external reasons determined the timing of their wedding. There were a few for whom the timing of their wedding was critical because of their immigration status. One simply referred to ‘immigration reasons’, adding that they would have been happy to have married in any way possible. Others specifically noted that it was crucial for them to supply a marriage certificate as part of their visa application; as one put it, had they not been able to be married in time ‘we could have been forced to be separated, pay costly appeals, and possibly have no way to be married until the pandemic ended’.Footnote 85 And two respondents who had not previously been intending to marry explained that they had decided to do so because they wanted the legal and financial security of being married. For at least one of these couples, getting married had more significance for the end of their relationship than the beginning; they described it as ‘essentially being done to make it easier for the other person or the kids if either of us die’.
Since these were all spontaneous responses to an open question at the end of the survey, any quantitative analysis based on these answers alone would be inappropriate. However, some indication of how many respondents valued simply getting married above how they married can be gleaned from a separate question about whether couples would have got married on their original date had various options been available. Two of these options were for a socially distanced wedding with only those who were legally required to be present in attendance: the first envisaged the wedding taking place indoors with any people from different households separated by screens, while the second suggested a wedding outdoors. The third option, inspired by various accounts of Zoom weddings and Channel 4's ‘Hitched at Home’,Footnote 86 was for a wedding by video link with everyone, including the couple and officiant, attending remotely, and unlimited guests. The question was directed solely at those whose weddings had been postponed because of lockdown, and while none of the options were particularly popular, 20% of respondents would have considered at least one of them, and just under 8% would have considered any of them.
Many of those who would have considered such options fell into a further group that indicated a simple desire just to get married. This desire had clearly been sharpened by the uncertainty as to whether even this would be possible and by the ongoing question mark over receptions. One, who commented that options ‘of getting married at home via online link, or witnesses/guests online, would have been helpful’, was in an area that was under a local lockdown and did not know whether even their postponed wedding would be able to take place.
This group emphasised how they had changed, or were thinking of changing, their plans in order to be able to marry – even if this meant not having the wedding they wanted. As mentioned above, 10 couples had been able to bring their weddings forward, and had married before the start of lockdown. Others had married once lockdown had ended, but indicated that they had done so with a smaller number of guests and with other changes to the ceremony. Many more had not yet married but explained how they had adapted their plans, and would adapt them more drastically if necessary. A typical comment came from one respondent who was hoping that their wedding and reception would be going ahead as scheduled but who would also ‘accept simply a ceremony. It is nowhere near the wedding we planned but we now simply want to marry and affirm our love/move on with our lives’. Some had not yet abandoned their hopes of being able to celebrate with a larger number of family and friends but took the view that if restrictions continued they would simply marry with as many people present as was permitted. As one such respondent noted, ‘as time has gone on it has made us re-evaluate the point of a wedding …. right now I just want to be able to call her my wife instead of worrying indefinitely about when we can host a big ceremony and what format it will take’.
Many of those who had had, or were planning, a small legal ceremony, were also intending to have a much larger celebration when conditions permitted. This second celebration was clearly seen as much more than a party. Some couples were planning to have something as close as possible to their original plans as a way of marking their first wedding anniversary. Others spoke of a blessing, a vow renewal with a registrar, or a celebrant-led ceremony.Footnote 87 For some the second celebration was a reception; for others it was their ‘wedding’, a mark of the extent to which the term is now used to refer to the celebrations surrounding getting married, rather than the fact of getting married.
This brings us on to the large group who could not envisage marrying without their friends – and more particularly their families – being present. Respondents frequently mentioned that they wanted to ensure the attendance of a particular member of their family, often one who lived overseas or who was ill. The vulnerability of some family members posed a particular dilemma for this group, who were all too painfully aware that while attending a wedding brought its own risks, postponing might mean that their parents or grandparents were no longer alive to see them married. Those from large families commented that a limit of 30 did not even cover immediate family: one, who had originally planned a wedding for 380, noted that her siblings and their partners comprised 42 guests. Cutting numbers was reported as causing upset with those family members who were no longer invited. And the necessity of complying with social distancing measures was seen as removing much of the joy from the occasion: as one respondent put it, ‘[a] wedding is a place of love, we want to be able to hug people and celebrate this properly’. As another reflected, being unable to participate in the usual rituals with loved ones had left them ‘feeling lost and robbed of a major life experience’; such rituals were not simply a ‘party’, since ‘[i]n times of hardship and hurt, people look to our known traditions and rituals for certainty and hope for the future – without these ceremonies, people are left hopeless’.
The final group consisted of those whose responses focused more on the organisation of their wedding and the changes that they had made to the practical arrangements. To say that these respondents were focused on the wedding as an event in and of itself is not to suggest that they did not take getting married seriously, or to trivialise the importance that they attached to the wedding.Footnote 88 These respondents emphasised the time and effort that had gone into planning the wedding and the financial costs of reorganising it. Many mentioned their ‘special day’ had been two or three years in the planning and they were understandably bitterly disappointed that all this had come to nothing. Flowers had been thrown away, flower-girls and pages had grown out of the outfits that had been bought for them, and items proudly displaying the intended date were a sad reminder of what might have been.
These responses raise important issues about the significance, scale, personalisation and expense of weddings today, which we explore elsewhere.Footnote 89 For present purposes, our focus is on how they might help shape solutions for the future.
4. Planning for the future
As the findings of our study illustrate, a small proportion of couples planning to marry at any given time are particularly badly affected by any outright restriction on weddings because of the importance that they attach to marriage as a prerequisite to setting up home together or having children. In an era in which the vast majority of couples live together before they marry and around half of all children are born outside marriage, and at a time when public health considerations were paramount, it was perhaps understandable that no conscious provision was made for this group. But the passionate pleas from some of our respondents underline the importance of ensuring that some provision is made.
Here it is worth noting that a number of jurisdictions did modify the requirements for a legally binding marriage to enable weddings to go ahead despite the lockdown. For those that already required relatively few formalities, this was a relatively simple matter. The US State of Colorado seems to have been the first, issuing an Executive Order on 26 March to enable marriage licences to be issued despite the closure of the offices from which they would normally be issued.Footnote 90 This suspended the laws requiring at least one party to the prospective marriage to appear in person before a county clerk and recorder, and the in-person submission of proof of age and eligibility to marry, and encouraged officials ‘to adopt guidance and publicly display such guidance online’ as to what was required by way of application and evidence. It also suspended the usual restrictions that licences could only be issued during office hours as prescribed by law and, once issued, would only be valid for 35 days. The absence of any mention of how the wedding could be solemnised reflects the fact that Colorado recognises weddings that are self-solemnised,Footnote 91 as well as allowing a wide range of officiants to conduct them.Footnote 92 Couples are simply required to return the licence and accompanying certificate within 63 days of the wedding.
But even jurisdictions that did require a third person to conduct the ceremony made adaptations to how this could be done. On 12 April the United Arab Emirates – which had suspended marriages and imposed restrictions on movement – announced a new procedure for getting married that allowed all stages to be completed online. Couples would be able to log on to the website of the Ministry of Justice to submit the required evidence. Once their application to marry had been approved, they would be able to book an appointment with the Ministry of Justice, who would appoint an imam to conduct the ceremony. The ceremony – attended by witnesses – would be conducted via a video link. An electronic marriage certificate would then be submitted to the Sharia Court, which would verify the information, ratify the marriage contract, and send it to the couple's mobile phones.Footnote 93 Just under a week later, the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, signed an order similarly authorising ‘any issuance of a marriage license application, marriage license, or witnessing or solemnizing of the marriage ceremony, that is required under New York State law …to be performed utilizing audio-video technology’, subject to a number of conditions.Footnote 94
Perhaps inspired by reports of such weddings, questions were asked in Parliament about whether it would be possible to allow couples to give notice remotely,Footnote 95 or marry outside. Suggestions that the government had failed to be ‘creative by allowing vicars and registrars to marry people in private gardens’Footnote 96 rather underestimated the challenges involved in reorienting the law governing weddings around the person conducting the ceremony rather than the place of celebration. As the government repeatedly pointed out, any such changes would require altering the legislation governing weddings.Footnote 97
That is not to say that such changes are not possible as part of a wider review of marriage law. Under the provisional proposals put forward by the Law Commission in its consultation paper, many of the problems we identified in the first section would disappear. It would be possible for notice to be given online or by post, reducing the risk of couples not being able to start the 28-day period in time for a ceremony immediately post-lockdown. Weddings could take place in the presence of just one registration officer, and would not be limited to taking place indoors, making it easier to comply with social distancing requirements.Footnote 98
Of the Commission's specific proposals for powers that could be exercised in any future emergency, the responses to the survey clearly show that the possibility of extending the validity of the authority to marry beyond the existing 12 monthsFootnote 99 would be welcome. The fact that this was not possible under the current law generated quite a number of complaints. As one put it, ‘not extending people's wedding license is utterly ridiculous!’ Quite apart from the financial implications, there was the time and annoyance of going through the process again, especially when, as one noted, all of their answers would be exactly the same as before.
The provisional proposal that weddings should, in any future emergency, be enabled to take place by video-link, would also have been welcomed by some couples. Of those who were asked if they would have considered this option,Footnote 100 8.5% responded in the affirmative. Most of these respondents were willing to consider any option that would enable them to get married legally: only 2% of the sample chose the video-link option alone. Viewed as a percentage of all couples getting married in England and Wales in any (normal) year, 8.5% would be over 20,000 couples, and even 2% would be around 5,000. It is therefore an option that deserves serious consideration so that provision can be made for those who place primary importance on the legal fact – or necessity – of getting married.
Since it is unlikely that any couples had initially dreamed of marrying by Zoom, such a solution would do little for those who want a wedding as part of getting married. Nonetheless, it might help even in such cases. It was striking how many responses referred to items that had the date of the wedding on them, or to outfits that would never be worn because of the change of date. Enabling a wedding to go ahead by video-link would ensure that commemorative items did at least record the date of the legal wedding, even if other celebrations had to be postponed, and that outfits could be worn on the intended day.
An online wedding, of course, would not be the same as celebrating in person. But the responses to the survey suggest that the way in which the health regulations attempted to strike a balance between getting married as a legal event and a wedding as a social event failed to please anyone. For those couples who simply wanted to be married, having to wait until weddings were permitted to go ahead with 30 guests was particularly frustrating, especially since pubs, restaurants, and gyms had been able to open earlier. Allowing marriages to go ahead earlier, with the minimum number of persons required by law, would have mitigated some of their anger and upset. For those couples who wanted to celebrate with family and friends, the limit of 30 was also problematic. Hardly any of our respondents had been planning to marry with fewer than 30 guests, which meant that going ahead meant making difficult choices. One couple married in a register office with just their respective parents present on the basis that they could not choose just 30 people from their large families. A lower limit might actually have been better for this group too, by reducing the inevitable tensions with family and friends who found themselves outside the top 30, and by differentiating more clearly between the legal ceremony and the celebrations still to come.
Covid-19 has shone a spotlight on the inconsistencies of the current law regulating weddings in England and Wales. Different types of weddings are subject to different preliminaries, different requirements as to who must be present, and different rules as to location, whether in terms of building, parish, or district. Such legal differences are compounded by differences in approach between different registration districts. Our findings show how in 2020 these differences – both legal and administrative – had the potential to determine whether a wedding could go ahead or not. At the same time, the complexities of the current law – which has developed over centuries – meant that changing any single aspect of it to facilitate weddings would have been problematic. This was not the case in other jurisdictions that either had fewer requirements or in which regulation was focused on the person conducting the ceremony rather than on where it was celebrated. Reform is clearly needed, but any such reform has to be holistic rather than piecemeal, and we hope that our findings will strengthen the case for making wedding law simpler and more flexible for the future.
The fact that for much of 2020 couples were either unable to marry, or unsure as to whether their planned wedding would go ahead, led many to reflect on just how important it was to them, whether for legal, religious, social, or emotional reasons. We hope that the clear evidence of the value that is placed on marriage demonstrates the need for some means of getting married to be available to couples, even – or perhaps especially – at the very worst of times. And we hope that all of those who responded to our survey have had, or at some point will have, a wonderful wedding day.