In this blog, I'll take you through the legalities surrounding marriage in the UK, and I’ll give you a step-by-step guide on how to get legally married if you’re having a celebrant-led wedding.
So, are celebrant-led weddings legally binding in the UK?
The short answer to this question is no. Humanist celebrants can legally marry people in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but currently in England and Wales, celebrants (both independent and Humanist) are not allowed to conduct legally binding weddings.
There are currently only three ways you can legally get married in the UK (other than those Humanists up in Scotland and NI)
At a register office, with a registrar officiating
At a licenced venue, with a registrar officiating
At a church, with a member of the clergy officiating
However, there are people working very hard to change this. On 19th July 2022, the Law Commission suggested to Parliament that the Marriage Laws in the UK undergo a major overhaul (they have remained largely unchanged since 1836!) One of the recommendations made is that both independent and Humanist celebrants should be allowed to legally marry people. If the government agrees to this, the change won’t happen overnight, so we may be waiting some time, but watch this space!
You definitely shouldn’t let this put you off booking a celebrant for your wedding, though. You can read about some of the many benefits to having a celebrant-led ceremony here. The legal wording and paperwork, or “The Admin”, as I like to call it, is only a very small part of a much bigger picture.
So here’s everything you need to know about getting legally married if you are having a separate, celebrant-led wedding ceremony.
First off, you’ll need to book the date and time of your legal ceremony. You can do this at any register office in the UK and it should cost around £50 (it may vary slightly from council to council.) You’ll need to ask for a statutory ceremony or a basic legal ceremony; every register office will offer this kind of ceremony, but they won't necessarily advertise it. Those who say they don’t or won't offer it are telling porkies - time to go to a different register office!
Most registration services will have set days and times for these simple ceremonies, and most couples choose to do this in the week or two leading up to their wedding, but you can do it afterwards if you wish. This is entirely up to you and there is no requirement to do it within a set timeframe in relation to your celebrant-led wedding. The only stipulation is that you must legally marry within 12 months of giving notice. Speaking of which…
Next, once you’ve booked your legal ceremony, you’ll need to give notice of marriage at your local register office at least 29 days before your legal wedding. A couple having a registrar-led ceremony at a wedding venue would need to do this as well. It costs £35 per person, and you’ll need to bring with you a valid UK passport, proof of your home address (eg. valid UK driving license, a council tax bill or a recent bank statement or utility bill etc), proof of any name changes (eg. a copy of a deed poll) and details of the legal ceremony venue (whichever register office you’ve chosen.)
Then comes the day of your legal ceremony. You’ll need to choose two adult witnesses (your two closest friends, two parents, or even two complete random strangers!) and head to the register office.
The registrar will first guide you through saying the Declaratory Words: “I do solemnly declare that I know not of any lawful impediment why I (your name) may not be joined in matrimony to (partners name)”, followed by the Contracting Words: “I call upon these persons here present to witness that I (your name) do take thee (partners name) to be my lawful wedded wife/husband”. Then you and your witnesses will sign the marriage schedule.
And that's it.
That’s quite literally all that makes you legally married. Two sentences and the flick of a pen.
Of course, I’m not downplaying the significance of it all. A lot of couples find that doing ‘The Admin’ is an exciting, and often emotional occasion for them. It’s still something to be celebrated and you should definitely pop some fizz afterwards. But you can save all the big, meaningful moments, such as exchanging rings, reading your own vows, or performing a symbolic ritual, for the day you get to celebrate your love with all your family and friends.
And if you or a family member are worried about you not getting legally married on the same day as your celebration, look at it this way: when we welcome a new baby into the world, we celebrate the day the baby was born, not the day where the parents go down to the register office a few weeks later and register the birth. And when someone passes away, we celebrate their life at the funeral, not when a relative registers the death with the registrars. In the same way, you’re celebrating the wedding and the love you have for each other with your nearest and dearest, and not the day when the record of your marriage is legally submitted to the council!
The legal side of a wedding can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be that way, and hopefully I’ve made the process a bit clearer for you. If you have any more questions, or if you want to have a chat about celebrating your day in a more personal way, please give me a shout! You can email me on email@example.com, pop me a DM on Instagram, or click below to send me a message.
Connie is an independent celebrant based in Manchester and Cheshire, working across the North West and beyond. She creates fun, meaningful and highly personalised ceremonies for couples and families who want to celebrate life’s biggest moments in their own way.
Photography credit: Rachel Joyce Photography