As the law currently stood, it was possible for 16- and 17-year-olds to enter into marriage and civil partnerships in England and Wales with parental or judicial consent. However, this will no longer be the case with the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act coming into effect today.
The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act was given Royal Assent on 28 April 2022 and will reform both the Marriage Act 1949 and the Civil Partnership Act 2004 to make it a criminal offence for anyone under the age of 18 to enter into marriage or form a civil partnership. This is done in the hope that it will reduce the number of forced marriages that are taking place across England and Wales.
Forced marriage was criminalised in 2014 when the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act entered into force. Under this legislation, it is only a forced marriage if there is some form of coercion or the individual lacks mental capacity under the Mental Capacity Act 2005 and as a result are unable to consent. If convicted, this offence carries a sentence of up to seven years imprisonment for anyone involved. From today, 27 February 2023, the scope of this offence will be widened to include forcing anyone under 18 to take part in a marriage or civil partnership ceremony whether legally binding or not.
It was found that in 2020, the Forced Marriage Unit gave advice or support in 750 cases solely related to forced marriage. This demonstrates how this is change is coming at a crucial point in society when it is necessary to update the law in reflection of the rise in forced marriage cases. Upon introduction of this new legislation, the Government in England and Wales are hopeful that it is going to afford greater protection to the most vulnerable children who are at risk and be a harsher deterrent for those who are thinking about being a facilitator of it.
An important point to make about this change in legislation is that it will not be retrospective and therefore will not affect the validity of any marriages of 16- and 17-year-olds that have taken place before it came into force.
Further to this, as times have changed and society has moved forwards, marriage at an early age has become less frequent. In the most recent survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics on marriages during 2019 it was found that there was only 28 boys and 111 girls aged 16-17 out of a total of 219,850 marriages. In addition to this, it was discovered that the average age of marriage was 34.3 years for men and 32.3 years for women.
“As a result, it is unlikely that the change in law is going to have a significant affect in the number of marriages taking place in England and Wales. But, for the minority of society who are at risk or are being forced to enter a marriage against their will, it will bring a substantial and positive change to their lives.” – Lucy Hart, Director and Family Law Solicitor
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