The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022 came into force on 27 February 2023 raising the legal age of marriage in England and Wales to 18. This reform to existing marriage laws, which had cross-party support, was introduced to Parliament by MP Pauline Latham.
This is a triumph for those who have campaigned against forced marriage as 16 and 17 year olds can no longer get married under any circumstances. All parental consent provisions have been removed.
This Act is crucially important and will help protect vulnerable children from being forced or coerced into marriage. It is now a criminal offence to cause a child under the age of 18 to enter a marriage in any circumstances, without the need to prove that any coercion was used (as was previously the case).
The legislation is far reaching and applies to legal and non-legal (religious, traditional or community) marriages. It also extends to some overseas marriages and the explanatory notes to the Act says: "The anticipated effect of this change on the common law means that any marriages which take place overseas, or in Scotland or Northern Ireland, involving under 18s where one of the parties is domiciled in England and Wales, will not be legally recognised in England and Wales. This change to recognition also applies to civil partnerships. This does not affect the validity of any marriages or civil partnerships entered before the Act comes into force."
The changes do not apply in Scotland and Northern Ireland although ministers in Northern Ireland have previously indicated that the legal age of marriage would increase to 18 after a public consultation showed 'overwhelming support' for this change.
Campaigners have heralded this landmark Act as a huge step forward in child protection. It is a hugely positive reform and its impact cannot be underestimated.
In 2021 the government's Forced Marriage Unit provided support in 118 cases involving victims who were under 18. However, campaigners believe official figures do not reflect the true scale of the problem as other victims may not have been able to reach out for support.