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Growing marriage backlog points to need for humanist marriage recognition

Rachel and Harvey with celebrant Hannah Bryant by Roo Stain.

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.

Humanist weddings are non-religious wedding ceremonies that are fully customised to match the deepest-held values and beliefs of the couple getting married. They are conducted by a humanist celebrant, someone guaranteed to share their beliefs. In consultation with the couple the celebrant produces a completely bespoke script. The ceremony also occurs in whatever location is most meaningful for the couple. Humanists UK has more than 300 trained and accredited wedding celebrants.

Humanist celebrants are well versed in mitigating pandemic-related risks. They create meaningful and authentic ceremonies in a safe and considered way, as is now needed for every event.

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.’


For further comment or information, please contact Ruth Wareham at or phone 020 7324 3000 or 0772 511 0860.

Humanist marriages gained legal recognition in Scotland in 2005 and in 2019 there were more humanist than Christian marriages for the first time (23% of the total). In the Republic of Ireland, humanist marriages gained legal recognition in 2012. In 2019 around 9% of legally recognised marriages were humanist. That places the Humanist Association of Ireland only behind the Catholic Church and civil marriages. They gained legal recognition in Northern Ireland in 2018, following a Court of Appeal ruling that concluded that a failure to do so would be a breach of human rights. Jersey also gave legal recognition to humanist marriages in 2019 and in 2021 Guernsey followed suit.

Legal recognition in England and Wales has been under constant Government review since 2013. The Marriage Act gave the Government the power to enact legal recognition of humanist marriages without needing a new Act. But in the eight years since, the Government has not done this. Instead it has reviewed the matter three times. The third, current review is by the Law Commission. It is not likely to result in a new Act for several years. It may not even result in legal recognition at all – the Government has still refused to commit to this.

In 2020, six humanist couples took a legal case to the High Court. They argued that they were discriminated against by the fact that religious marriages are legally recognised but humanist marriages are not. The judge in the case agreed, ruling that ‘the present law gives rise to… discrimination’. She also ruled that, in light of that, the Secretary of State for Justice ‘cannot… simply sit on his hands’ and do nothing. However, given the ongoing Law Commission review, she also said that the Government’s refusal to act immediately can be justified ‘at this time’. She concluded, ‘Although I may deprecate the delay that has occurred since 2015, I cannot ignore the fact that there is currently an on-going review of the law of marriage in this country.’ The couples are exploring an appeal of this. They think that the eight years the Government has already had reviewing the matter is long enough.

Read more about our work on legal recognition of humanist marriages.

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