Wedding law reform proposals will curb unregistered Islamic marriages

20 July 2022

Christian Concern’s Head of Public Policy, Tim Dieppe, comments on a new recommendations to reform weddings law.

This week, the Law Commission has released its long-awaited recommendations to reform weddings law. The proposed reforms will go a long way to prevent the problem of unregistered Islamic marriages which Christian Concern has been highlighting for many years.

The problem of unregistered marriages

Baroness Cox has been tirelessly raising the issue of the plight of Muslim women who considered themselves to be legally married, only to find that their marriage was unregistered. This means that if their ‘husband’ divorces or leaves them, or dies, or even takes another wife, they do not have any legal rights as the wife of the man. Baroness Cox has been proposing amendments or Bills in the House of Lords to protect these women for over 10 years, and yet so far there has been no action from the government on this issue.

Back in 2016, I wrote about how women are ‘suffering on a large scale’ due to unregistered religious marriages, and in support of an amendment proposed by Baroness Cox in the House of Lords that would require religious marriages to be registered. Marriages are required to be registered in Pakistan, but not in the UK, so as it stands today the rights of women are better protected in Pakistan than in the UK in this respect.

Calls to protect Muslim women

In 2019, the Council of Europe passed a resolution calling on the UK to take six specific actions in relation to the influence of sharia law. One of the actions the UK was called upon to take was to review the Marriage Act to make it a legal requirement for Muslim couples to civilly register their marriage before or at the same time as their Islamic ceremony, as is already stipulated by law for Christian and Jewish ceremonies. The government has still not responded to this resolution.

The independent review into the application of sharia law in England and Wales also recommended in 2018 that Muslim marriages should be required to be registered. A Court of Appeal judgment in 2020 ruled that sharia marriages are not recognised under UK law, making clear that Muslim women have no legal protection if their husband divorces or leaves them, or even marries another wife.

Channel 4 carried out a survey of Muslim women in 2017 which found that 66.5% of women who had had an Islamic marriage had no civil ceremony and therefore their marriage was not recognised in UK law. Of these, 28% thought that they were legally married. Only one in eight (12.4%) of the women were advised by the Imam what is required for their marriage to be recognised in law.

The Law Commission recommendations

The Law Commission Report makes some good proposals to deal with the problem of unregistered marriages.

First, religious weddings will not need to take place in a place of worship. This is important for Muslim women, as traditionally Islamic marriages, or nikahs, are carried out in the home or in a banqueting site where the Imam comes to conduct the ceremony.

Second, there will be no prescribed words that have to be included which will make it easier for ceremonies to qualify as a legal marriage. The officiant would be responsible for ensuring that consent has been expressed during the ceremony. From a Christian perspective, however, not requiring any particular words is a watering down of the marriage ceremony.

Third, a marriage will be counted as valid “if the couple complete the in-person stage of the preliminaries and consent to be married in the presence of an officiant, or a person whom at least one of them believes to be an officiant.” This is a key proposal which protects women from deception as to the legal status of the ceremony.

Fourth, “a marriage will be void, (rather than non-qualifying) if the couple do not complete the in-person stage of the preliminaries but still consent to be married in the presence of an officiant, or a person whom at least one of them believes to be an officiant.” A void marriage still has some legal status, providing protection for the women even in these circumstances.

Fifth, the Law Commission proposes that “it should be an offence for an officiant, or a person who purports to be an officiant or leads the ceremony, to mislead either of the couple about the legal effect of their ceremony. In addition, an officiant will be guilty of an offence if they do not disclose that a ceremony at which they are officiating will not give rise to a valid marriage.” This places a duty in law on the officiant to ensure that there is no deception about the legal status of the ceremony. It will not protect women who are coerced or agree to enter into an unregistered marriage. The Law Society proposes that this could be dealt with by providing some legal protection for cohabiting couples, but this would only serve to further undermine the institution of marriage.

This will also prevent polygamy

These recommendations are a welcome step forwards in dealing with the problem of unregistered Islamic marriages in the UK. Ensuring that these marriages are registered will also address the problem of polygamy, since registration of the marriage will not allow polygamy. The Channel 4 survey found that 10.9% of Muslim women said that they were in a polygamous relationship, and 37% of those said that they had not agreed to the polygamous relationship.

While we are concerned at some of the ways in which marriage is weakened by the Law Society recommendations, we are pleased to see strong proposals for tackling the issue of unregistered marriages. We hope the government will adopt these recommendations and act to protect vulnerable Muslim women in this way.

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