Minimum marriage age rises to 18 in England and Wales

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A new law has come into force across England and Wales that increased the legal age of marriage to 18. 

Previously, children could get married at 16 or 17 if they had parental consent. However, if those ceremonies were not legally binding, there were also no legal repercussions for marriage ceremonies involving even younger children. Instead, forced marriages were only deemed an offence if coercion, force and threats were used. 

The government has claimed that the new  Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act has been introduced to protect vulnerable children from being forced into marriage. This new legislation will also cover non-legally binding “traditional” ceremonies, meaning that it is illegal for children to marry under any circumstances, regardless of whether force is used or not.

Those found guilty of the offence face up to seven years in prison. 

The changes will not apply in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the minimum age for marriage remains 16.

Why has this been introduced?

The new legislation has been introduced to protect vulnerable children from forced marriage. 

In 2021, the government’s Forced Marriage Unit provided assistance in 118 cases where children under 18 had been forced into marriage. These figures are expected not to reflect the true scale of the problem, as many victims cannot reach out for support.

Deputy Prime Minister, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Dominic Raab MP, said. This law will better protect vulnerable young people, by cracking down on forced marriage in our society. 

Those who act to manipulate children into marrying underage will now rightly face the full force of the law.”

Meanwhile, Minister for Safeguarding, Sarah Dines MP, said:

“Forced marriage is an abuse of human rights which denies vulnerable children the freedom to learn, grow and thrive. Like all other forms of abuse, I’m committed to stamping out this exploitative practice.

In addition to this welcome new legislation, we are also continuing to provide training and guidance to equip the police, social workers and other frontline professionals to support and safeguard victims.”

Will this new law affect marriages abroad?

The new law will mean that marriages of under 18s, which occur abroad, will not be legally recognised in England and Wales if either party is domiciled in the UK. 

Will this discredit marriages that previously occurred in under 18s?

No. Any legally-binding marriage that has previously occurred in children either 16 or 17, will retain its validity. 

The average age of marriage is 31.5 for women, and 33.4 for men – so whilst the new legislation is unlikely to affect most, we understand that this will be significant for those dealing with child protection and forced marriages. 

If you’d like the advice of our expert Family Law Solicitor here at DRN, then please get in touch with our team on 01282 433241 or by dropping us a message here.