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What makes a marriage?

View profile for Kirsty Morris
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Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s recent interview with Oprah brought up many issues, one of which was whether they enjoyed a valid marriage ceremony before their much-publicised wedding in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. Meghan stated that she and Prince Harry were married three days before their wedding when she and the Prince exchanged vows before the Archbishop of Canterbury in their garden during a private ceremony. There has been some debate as to the status of the latter which at the time of writing has not been clarified nor confirmed.

Celebrating a relationship and affirming a commitment to a partner are hugely personal acts. To create a valid marriage, however, couples must remember that the ceremony must fall within the legal requirements of the Marriage Act 1949 and the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. In order for a marriage to be valid, the ceremony has to take place in a registered building, the ceremony has to be performed by a specific person, there must be witnesses and advanced notice and publication given about the intended marriage.

The marriage laws in England and Wales are arguably outdated and close to falling foul of the Human Rights Act. The Court of Appeal’s decision in Akhter v Kahn [2020] EWCA Civ 122 concluded that it is for Parliament to update the law rather than the courts. In that case, a couple who celebrated their relationship with an Islamic Nikah ceremony in 1996 were held to have a “non-marriage” and therefore despite living as if they were married for 20 years and having four children together, because the union did not fulfil the criteria of a valid marriage or indeed a void marriage, the court had no ability to make financial orders when the relationship ended.

The Law Commission of England and Wales is reviewing the legal framework which sets out the rules for creating a valid marriage and making recommendation for change. One of the big issues will be whether the marriage laws should be updated so that all religious ceremonies (which fulfil certain criteria such as being conducted by a licenced celebrant and held in public) give rise to a valid marriage or whether all couples should have a civil ceremony in order to register a marriage followed by any religious or other ceremony or blessing of their choosing.

Marriage creates a significant legal union which gives rise to wide reaching financial claims. Clearly there is a balance to be struck between making sure couples can enjoy a ceremony which is in line with their values and beliefs and ensuring that there are clear and straightforward legal requirements for ceremonies which allow any couple who wish to register their relationship to do so.  

Until such time as any changes are made to the marriage laws in this country, it is important that both parties take advice well in advance of any ceremony so that they can be aware of the implications of their big day (and then preferably focus on that).

If you would like to speak to one of our specialists about any of the issues raised in the above, please contact us at or on 0203 824 9550.