The Memo: Change to the legal age of marriage in England and Wales

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Change to the legal age of marriage in England and Wales

Amy Howe – 06 March 2023

At the end of February, new legislation came in to play raising the legal age of marriage from 16 to 18 in England and Wales. Previously, the law meant 16- and 17-year-olds could legally wed with parental consent, and those even younger were not protected from non-legally binding ceremonies (i.e., marriages not registered with local councils). The new legislation also extends to the latter. Any breach of this law now carries a sentence of up to seven years in prison, regardless of whether coercion is used or if the marriage is recognised by religious or legal officials. As it stands today, children previously married under the age of 18, prior to the implementation of the new legislation, are recognised as victims of forced marriage.

The legislation does not extend to Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the minimum age remains at 16. However, along with the new Act, the UK government has issued notes explaining that following the legislation, underage marriages taking place outside England and Wales involving at least one person legally based in England and Wales will not be recognised by the courts. This extends to civil partnerships too.

The new rules clear up any grey areas surrounding the legality of under-18 marriages. The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 outlined that it was illegal to force any person to wed through the use of violence, threats, or any form of coercion, or without the person’s full and free consent. Such proof of coercion is no longer needed in the case of those under 18 years of age.