News & Insights

Raising the minimum age of marriage

The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022 will shortly come into force, raising the minimum age for marriage to 18 without exception.

It may surprise some to learn that according to the ONS there were 563 marriages conducted in the UK between 2016 and 2019 which involved at least one child aged between 16 and 17. Under the laws of England and Wales, 16 and 17 year olds may marry or enter a civil partnership with either parental or judicial consent, and this is not a quirk of outdated laws specific to our jurisdiction: both Scotland and Northern Ireland hold the same minimum age of 16.

Fortunately, the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022 is due to come into force on 27 February 2023 which will mean it will no longer be possible for anyone under the age of 18 to marry or enter a civil partnership, removing the previous exceptions.

Importantly, the Act will also expand the criminal offence of forced marriage to include an individual doing anything intended to cause a child to marry before they turn 18. There will not be any need for the victim to prove they had been coerced into the marriage and the offence will encompass ceremonies that are not legally binding, such as community or religious ceremonies. As it currently stands, the law in relation to forced or coerced marriages is narrow, covering circumstances such as where an individual forces someone to marry through use of violence or threats or if the victim marries while lacking capacity under the Mental Capacity Act 2005 (Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014).

This was one of the key aims of many of those who have campaigned for the change in the law. Since 2012, many developed western democracies have raised the age of marriage to 18 without exception, in an effort to protect adolescents, particularly girls, from forced marriages. However, many felt it was insufficient to simply raise the threshold without criminalising the act of child marriage or forced marriage. It is apparent that the existing law was failing victims and the new law is a significant milestone in eradicating exploitation of this kind.

The government has also produced a helpful guidance page for recognising a forced marriage and supporting victims.