Since 1929, the legal age for marriage within heterosexual relationships in England and Wales has been as young as 16 years old, as long as both parties receive parental or judicial permission. As of April 2022, this has legally been raised to 18. The minimum age is also currently 16 in Scotland, although there is no need for parental consent.
The bill aims to protect against arranged marriages and coercion into abusive relationships, which is a prevalent issue. In fact, over 25% of forced marriage unit cases in 2020 in the UK involved parties under the age of 18 (not including any religious or cultural marriages). UK law classes 18 as the legal age of adulthood physically, emotionally and mentally, meaning that marriage any younger than this legally involves a child.
The effects of early marriage have been in discussion for a long time and include the likes of lack of education, emotional adversity, and a lack of social and medical support for women. In raising the minimum UK age of marriage, there is hope of also directly combating some of these factors in young people.
What Does the New Law Mean for Parents?
Prosecution for parents encouraging marriage for their children will now be easier. It will now be illegal for any action to take place that causes a child’s marriage, including actions like booking a venue or any transportation. Previously, it was only illegal to force a child into marriage through threats, violence, or other aggressive behaviours.
Adults who facilitate child marriages could now face a fine, and up to seven years of jail time, including situations in which parents in England and Wales take their children abroad to have them married in countries where it’s legal. The children involved will not face any penalties.
What Does the New Law Mean for Cultures and Religions?
The new law on the legal marital age also applied to any cultural or religious marriages that are not registered locally with the council.
There may need to be an educational campaign on when and how to enforce the law as, for example, ‘marriage’ in Roma communities is used to mean any romantic relationship, and not necessarily legal marriage. There are, therefore, some concerns within Roma communities about complications surrounding terminology and the new law.
What Does the New Law Mean for Pre-Existing Marriages
Any marriages or civil partnerships that took place before the law came into place will still be valid, regardless of the age of either party involved.
Additionally, the law will not be changed in Scotland or Northern Ireland. Here, the minimum age for marriage will continue to be 16. In Northern Ireland, parties still need parental permission if they are under 18, but this is not the case in Scotland.
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