Growing marriage backlog points to need for humanist marriage recognition

More and more couples having humanist weddings in England and Wales are expressing their frustration at the growing waiting times before they can also have a civil marriage and so be married in the eyes of the law. The backlogs in many parts of the country are a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent bulge in demand for weddings this summer. The couples invariably only want the humanist wedding but are forced to also have the civil marriage in order to be legally married. This is because of the persistent failure of the UK Government to extend legal recognition to humanist marriages. Humanists UK has called for this to change.

In a survey, Humanists UK wedding celebrants in England and Wales were asked whether they have couples who have tried to book a civil marriage ceremony with a registrar this year. If so, they were then asked whether those couples have had difficulties in securing the civil marriage ceremony.

Of those who have couples who have tried to book, 55% said that their couples have had difficulties in securing a civil marriage ceremony for 2021. They described experiencing problems all over the country, in places as widespread as North Yorkshire, Cornwall, London, Leeds, Norfolk, the West Midlands, Manchester, Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Liverpool, Sunderland, Norfolk, Kent, Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, and Worcestershire.

One celebrant in south east England said, ‘[The local authority’s] stance is if [the couple] do their legal paperwork [in the LA] they have no option other than a full registrar service at the venue at the cost of £700 so essentially having to have two ceremonies on the same day.’ Another said, ‘Many are postponing to 2022 or 2023 due to limited availability and stress linked to all the changes that keep happening. They have no confidence they can get the legal part done at a good time for them so are choosing to postpone.’ Another in Yorkshire said ‘One couple has been told that no new enquiries for weddings are being taken at all. They can’t even get on a waiting list.’ Another said ‘Previously, [my  council] offered £70 simple ceremonies, but haven’t for a couple of years now; their lowest-cost offering seems to be around £275.’ Another in south west England said ‘One couple wanted a no frills [cheapest civil marriage] but couldn’t get a response and then were offered a full ceremony at the venue by a registrar, so cancelled the humanist ceremony they had booked with me because they didn’t want to pay twice.’

Humanist marriages are legally recognised across the UK, Ireland, and crown dependencies – except England and Wales. In England and Wales, over 1,000 couples a year already have a humanist wedding without legal recognition. But they all must have a separate civil marriage for their marriage to be legally recognised, even though it is not what they want. Couples must go through formalities twice. This leads to financial strain, and distress over the state failing to recognise their humanist wedding as their ‘real’ one.

And now, due to the pandemic, that need for an unwanted second wedding has become even more of a burden. Humanist celebrants in England and Wales could be providing legally recognised marriages – much as their colleagues are everywhere else. But they are instead unable to help their couples, having to watch as they wait months before they can have a legally recognised marriage service that the celebrant themselves should be able to provide.

West Midlands-based Humanists UK wedding celebrant Hannah Bryant commented:

‘Several of my couples this year have struggled to get a date for their civil marriages. That includes some that have already postponed their weddings from 2020. This is particularly frustrating when they only wanted their humanist weddings in the first place. I’m doing everything I can to support them, but ultimately the law needs to change. That can’t happen soon enough.’

Humanists UK Director of Ceremonies Deborah Hooper commented:

‘The pandemic has caused a huge backlog in demand for marriages. This means lots of couples are now struggling to find a suitable date for their civil marriage. Our sympathy extends to all couples regardless of the type of marriage they are having. But this problem is particularly frustrating given couples having humanist weddings don’t even want to have a civil marriage. They are being forced to because of England and Wales’s persistent failure to change the law.

‘The UK Government is currently reviewing marriage law. On its current timetable this does not look set to result in any new legislation for several more years. And the Government hasn’t even committed to legally recognising humanist marriages after that review. That simply isn’t good enough. The Government should extend legal recognition without further delay, even if it then changes the law again after the review. Anything less than immediate recognition will leave thousands of couples stranded, unable to have the big day they want.’