A new law (Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill) is due to receive Royal Assent this week to raise the legal age for marriage and civil partnerships to 18 in England and Wales.
Before this law change, children could marry with parental consent at the age of 16 or 17. In a way that we are perhaps not used to, the Bill went through Parliament very easily and had almost complete cross party support.
The law will remain as it is in Scotland (children can marry at 16 or 17 without consent) and Northern Ireland (children can marry only with consent at ages 16 or 17). Efforts continue in those parts of the UK to mirror the changes in the law in England & Wales.
The new Bill will mean that children aged 16 and 17 will no longer be able to get married with the consent of their parents. This will include marriages abroad to prevent children being taken out of the country to marry. The law will also prohibit cultural and religious marriages for children aged 16 and 17 (whether or not they are legally binding). If a marriage of a child is found to have taken place the child will not be penalised but the adults who facilitated the marriage could face up to seven years in prison.
Charity campaigners have for a long time fought for this change in the law to protect children who by virtue of their young age and vulnerability are at risk of being married as a child, very often in situations where there is parental/family abuse or force. The statistics show that the large majority of children who marry are girls.
Children’s charity Barnardo’s has said that "closing the loophole that allows 16 and 17 year olds to marry with parental consent will help to protect children from being coerced into marriage, which can cause them to miss out on education, and even become victims of domestic abuse and other harm".
The first Forced Marriage Protection Orders were brought in by the Family Law Act in 1986 enabling the court to make orders to prevent children being forced to marry. However, the risk of abuse and the inability of children and others concerned about a possible forced marriage still depends on someone knowing about a possible forced marriage and being able to make the application to prevent it. In 2014, forced marriage was made a criminal offence.
However, the fact of a parent being able to consent to the marriage for a 16 or 17 year old child, allowed the possibility for coercion and familial pressure and expectation which may fall short of what people consider as “force” and the victim may not recognise it as such.
The campaigners for change include children who now, as adults, have spoken out against the marriages they entered as children, sometimes to people they have never met, and the harm they have suffered.
This step forward in changing the law to prevent children marrying at all has been very widely supported as necessary to protect children and is to be welcomed.
Our lawyers in the children team can advise and assist where there are concerns about a child being forced into marriage or about any other matter relating to children.