The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill is a private member’s bill. It was sponsored in the House of Commons by Pauline Latham (Conservative MP for Mid Derbyshire). The bill was initially introduced by Sajid Javid (Conservative MP for Bromsgrove), shortly before his appointment as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. It is being sponsored in the House of Lords by Baroness Sugg (Conservative).

The aim of the bill is to address the practice of child marriage in England and Wales. It would do this by removing provisions allowing parental or judicial consent to marriages or civil partnerships of those aged 16 and 17. In addition, the bill would extend the scope of current legislation regarding forced marriage. The bill would not affect the validity of any marriages or civil partnerships entered before the bill comes into force. The bill’s substantive provisions would not extend to Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The explanatory notes to the bill were produced by the Home Office and Ministry of Justice and the bill has Government support.

The bill had its first reading in the House of Lords on 28 February 2022. It is scheduled to have its second reading on 1 April 2022.

Background information

What are the rules for marriage age in the UK?

According to the bill’s explanatory notes, marriage and civil partnerships in England and Wales are generally limited in law to those aged 18 and over. Parental or judicial consent is required to allow 16‑ and 17-year-olds to marry or enter a civil partnership (unless the 16- or 17-year-old is a widow or widower or surviving civil partner). Existing legislation currently makes void any unions where either person is below the age of 16.

The Government has explained that the law relating to marriages and civil partnerships is devolved in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, opposite-sex and same-sex couples can get married or enter into a civil partnership if they are both at least 16 years old. No parental or judicial consent is required. In Northern Ireland, individuals can get married or enter into a civil partnership if both are at least 16 years of age on the day of their marriage, but anyone under 18 needs parental or judicial consent.

In November 2021, a consultation about raising the minimum age of marriages and civil partnerships to 18 was opened by the Department of Finance in Northern Ireland, which holds responsibility for civil law reform. The consultation closed in February 2022.

How common is child marriage in England and Wales?

In 2018, 147 individuals aged 16 or 17 were married in England and Wales. This made up 0.06% of the total number of 234,795 marriages that took place that year. The Office for National Statistics (ONS), which compiles data on marriages in England and Wales, does not break down whether these marriages were same-sex or opposite-sex, or provide an age breakdown of civil partnerships.

However, it is likely these figures do not reflect the true extent of the issue. The ONS statistics only cover registered ceremonies in England and Wales and do not include those married in non-registered marriages, such as some religious ceremonies and customary ceremonies. Statistics regarding these ceremonies are hard to obtain.

The forced marriage unit (FMU), a joint Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and Home Office body, does produce figures related to any religious or civil ceremony of marriage, whether or not it is legally binding, but only in relation to ‘forced marriages’. This is where coercion is used or there are issues regarding capacity of the victim under the Mental Capacity Act 2005. The information would therefore not cover marriages where this is not the case.

The latest FMU figures show that of the 759 cases related to a possible forced marriage and/or possible female genital mutilation (FGM) that the FMU provided advice or support to in 2020: 750 cases solely related to forced marriage; 3 cases related to both forced marriage and FGM; and 6 cases solely related to FGM. In addition:

  • 199 cases (26%) involved victims aged below 18 years of age.
  • 278 cases (37%) involved victims aged 18–25.
  • 66 cases (9%) involved victims with mental capacity concerns.
  • 603 cases (79%) involved female victims, and 156 cases (21%) involved male victims.

The FMU has described these proportions as being broadly in line with case numbers from recent years, noting “forced marriage is not a problem specific to one country, religion or culture”.

Government policy on child marriage

The Government has previously expressed support for raising the minimum age for marriage to 18. The UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) include a target to “eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation” (target 5.3). Under the UN SDGs, countries around the world, including the UK, pledged to end all child marriage by 2030. UNICEF defines child marriage as “any formal marriage or informal union between a child under the age of 18 and an adult or another child”.

In addition, a 2016 report by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended that the UK raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 years across all UK jurisdictions, overseas territories and crown dependencies.

The Government has since committed to raising the age at which individuals can marry or enter into civil partnerships. In its Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy, published in 2021, the Government stated:

Child marriage and having children too early in life can deprive children of important life chances, which is why the Government will support raising the age of marriage and civil partnership in England and Wales from 16 to 18, when an appropriate legislative vehicle becomes available, to help stamp out marriage of minors. The age of 18 is widely recognised as the age at which one becomes an adult, and at which full citizenship rights should be gained.

What would the bill do?

The bill would amend the legislation currently governing marriages and civil partnerships in England and Wales. It would also impact legal recognition of unions registered elsewhere where at least one of the participants was domiciled in England and Wales and expand the scope of legislation about forced marriage. The explanatory notes to the bill explain:

The purpose of the bill is to address the practice of child marriage in England and Wales. The bill will raise the minimum age of marriage and civil partnership to 18 in England and Wales. This will bring an end to provisions allowing for 16- and 17-year-olds to marry or enter a civil partnership with parental or judicial consent.

The anticipated effect of this change on the common law will also mean that any marriages which take place overseas, or in Scotland or Northern Ireland, involving under 18s where one of the parties is domiciled in England and Wales, will not be legally recognised in England and Wales. This change to recognition will also apply to civil partnerships. This will not affect the validity of any marriages or civil partnerships entered before the bill comes into force.

The bill will also make it illegal for a person to arrange the marriage of a person under the age of 18 in England and Wales in those circumstances where that is not already illegal.

Increasing the minimum age of marriage and civil partnership to 18

The main legislation covering marriages and civil partnerships in England and Wales is the Marriage Act 1949 (MA 1949) and the Civil Partnership Act 2004 (CPA 2004).

The acts currently include provisions which mean that any marriage or civil partnership between individuals where either individual is under the age of 16 is void. In addition, provisions only allow a marriage or civil partnership involving those aged 16 and 17 where appropriate persons, such as a parent or guardian of the child, provide consent.

Clause 1 of the bill would amend the MA 1949 so that a marriage in which either person is under the age of 18 is void. It would also remove provisions allowing consent for those aged between 16 and 17 to marry. Clause 3 of the bill would make similar amendments to the CPA 2004.

Clause 4 of the bill would amend section 54 of the CPA 2004 which deals with the validity of civil partnerships registered outside England and Wales; including civil partnerships conducted in Northern Ireland, Scotland or overseas. The changes would make civil partnerships void where one of the two persons was domiciled in England and Wales and where one of the two people was under 18. This would also apply to the conversion of a marriage into a civil partnership in Northern Ireland.

Clause 4(3) amends section 217(2) of the CPA 2004, which concerns registering an overseas marriage or civil partnership. It would change the minimum age for registering a marriage from 16 to 18 if a participant was domiciled in England and Wales when the overseas union was registered. The bill would not amend subsections relating to people domiciled in Northern Ireland or Scotland. Clause 4(3) is the only provision which extends to Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, the bill’s explanatory notes explain that the provision “only impacts couples where one of the parties is under 18 and one of the parties is domiciled in England or Wales”.

Forced marriage

Provisions aimed at tackling forced marriage are set out in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 (ASBCPA 2014).

Section 121 of the act relates to ‘forced marriage’. It makes it an offence for a person to use coercion, such as violence or threats, in order to make another person marry “so long as they believe, or ought reasonably to believe, that the conduct may cause the other person to enter into the marriage without free and full consent”. Section 121 also makes it an offence to make someone who lacks the capacity to consent to marriage (within the meaning of the Mental Capacity Act 2005) to enter into a marriage (whether or not the conduct amounts to violence, threats or any other form of coercion).

Both provisions in section 121 apply to any religious or civil ceremony of marriage, whether or not it is legally binding, involving UK nationals or those resident in England and Wales.

Clause 2 of the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill would broaden the scope of section 121 of ASBCPA 2014 to include any conduct for the purpose of arranging a marriage of a person under the age of 18. This would include conduct where there had been no use of violence, threats or any other form of coercion. In addition, the conduct need not have been directed at that child but could have been directed at another person.

Territorial extent, commencement and other clauses

Clause 5 would grant the secretary of state the power to make consequential amendments by statutory instrument, including to primary legislation. The delegated powers memorandum produced by the Government argues that the power (often referred to as a “Henry VIII” power) is necessary to avoid implementation difficulties or legislative inconsistencies. The memorandum states that where a delegated power is to be used to amend primary legislation it will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure in parliament, with the negative resolution procedure applying where secondary legislation is being amended.

Clauses 6 and 7 contain provisions relating to the territorial extent of the bill and when the measures would come into force. For example, the bill would extend to England and Wales only, apart from clauses 5 to 9 and clause 4(3) which would also extend to Scotland and Northern Ireland. The bill’s provisions would be brought into force by commencement regulations laid by the secretary of state.

Clause 8 would ensure that marriages or civil partnerships entered into before the bill comes into force would not be affected.

What happened to the bill in the House of Commons?

Second reading

The bill’s second reading in the House of Commons took place on 19 November 2021, where it received both Government and Labour support. Introducing the bill, Conservative MP Pauline Latham noted the devastating impact of child marriage on young people, arguing the bill sought to “stop young people being victims”. She described legislation permitting children over the age of 16 to marry with parental consent as “outdated”. Mrs Latham emphasised that the bill would apply to both registered and unregistered marriage ceremonies through changes to legislation regarding forced marriage. Supporting the bill would, she argued, help the UK “to set an example to the rest of the world on prioritising children’s futures”.

Speaking for the Labour Party, Andy Slaughter, then Shadow Justice Minister, called the bill an “important and substantial step forward”. Speaking for the Government, Justice Minister Tom Pursglove said the bill would lead to “a significant social reform for the better, and probably one that we will think was long overdue”. He confirmed that the Government would support the bill.

Committee stage

The bill was debated in a public bill committee on 12 January 2022. No amendments were tabled and all clauses were agreed without a vote.

Report and third reading

Report stage of the bill took place on 25 February 2022. Mrs Latham tabled several technical amendments to clause 2, which deals with legislation governing forced marriage.

Explaining the amendments, Mrs Latham argued that they would make the bill “clearer and cleaner, and provide more effective, targeted and proportionate safeguarding”. She said the amendments included a possible “solution” to potential loopholes in the legislation for those marrying in Scotland and Northern Ireland who had a connection to England and Wales.

The amendments were welcomed by the Government and agreed without division.

Speaking at third reading, Mrs Latham praised the cross-party spirit which had marked the passage of the bill through the Commons, arguing that it made “a much better piece of legislation”. She argued the bill was important as it would:

[…] offer protection from marriage to every single child who grows up in England and Wales, forever. At a stroke, it will stop both registered and unregistered marriages under the age of 18 and ensure that this protection cannot be avoided simply by someone temporarily leaving the country.

She also explained the changes to forced marriage legislation the bill would make:

Crucially, unlike with forced marriage, there is no need to prove coercion or control. This takes the onus away from the child to show that their marriage was forced and will make prosecutions easier and the deterrent that much stronger. I should make it absolutely clear that this criminal offence is not about criminalising the child. The child is the victim in every single case; the criminals are the adults who organised these marriages.

The bill again received cross-party support. Responding for Labour, Shadow Justice Minister Anne McMorrin paid tribute to Mrs Latham, noting “it has been good to see significant cross-party cooperation and consensus throughout the bill’s stages” and calling the bill “a crucial and substantial step forward”. Justice Minister Tom Pursglove, speaking for the Government, echoed these sentiments, arguing “this may not be a long bill, but the important impact is far-reaching, and many lives will be changed for the better because of it”.

Further reading

Cover image by Sandy Millar on Unsplash.