The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2020 will come into effect today, 27 February 2023. The Act raises the minimum age requirement for marriage to 18 in all circumstances. Previously, 16 and 17 year olds were able to marry if they had parental or judicial consent.
The intention of the Act is not to punish young people who marry but rather to protect vulnerable young people who are at risk from forced marriage and child marriage. Each year globally, there are an estimated 12 million girls married before the age of 18, according to UNICEF.
It is recognised that child marriage can compromise a child's development, whether in their education, career development or social life. While marriage rates for young people in England and Wales are relatively low, with 1 in 1000 females and 0.3 in 1000 males marrying between the ages of 16 and 20 (ONS), the Act seeks to deter individuals from sending child brides and grooms abroad to get married.
Anyone carrying out any conduct which relates to marrying a person under 18 is guilty of an offence which can land them up to 7 years in prison and a hefty fine. Significantly there is no longer a requirement to prove coercion. This blanket ban removes any element of discretion, introducing more concrete protection for child victims of forced marriage. This is a welcome change for the protection of children.
Despite this, protection afforded by the Act is focused on individuals under the age of 18. While this is a positive shift, the adult victims of forced marriage are still subject to the same vulnerability. The Forced Marriage Unit found in 2021 that only 35% of the cases they advised on involved victims under the age of 18. While an autonomous adult could not be banned from getting married, further protections may need to be considered to ensure their protection.