During the COVID-19 pandemic, the rules surrounding weddings regularly changed to reflect government guidelines and the world’s growing understanding of the virus.
The rules ranged from a complete ban on weddings in March 2020, to a limit of 30 people (including the engaged couple) without any singing or dancing in June 2020, to a guest limit depending on the venue in June 2021, with various stages in between.
As of 19 July 2021, the majority of legal restrictions on social distancing were lifted and weddings, in theory, could go back to ‘normality’. However, COVID-19 has not simply gone away overnight so it is opportune that, as the rules on social distancing restrictions were lifted, the government introduced an amendment to the Marriages and Civil Partnerships (Approved Premises) Regulations 2005 (‘The Regulations’).
The Regulations previously limited weddings and civil ceremonies to ‘approved premises’ which were required to use a permanently built structure for the legal ceremony. This usually meant an indoor room or permanent gazebo. The amendment (which came into force on 1 July 2021) now allows couples at approved premises to have their whole ceremony outside if they so wish. The change is only due to be effective until April 2022, but the government have already indicated that they will review the situation in Autumn 2021 to consider whether the changes should be made permanent. It should be noted that the amendments do not apply to every ceremony and, in particular, religious marriages still need to take place in a certified place of worship though the government has said that they will also review the rules around religious ceremonies taking place outdoors in future.
The amendment came about in response to the Law Commission’s paper in September 2020, ‘Getting Married – A Consultation Paper on Wedding Law’, which considered how other countries such as Scotland and Ireland already have more flexible rules than England and Wales around where a couple can be legally married. The paper commented on how greater flexibility would allow couples to make more meaningful choices about where they want to be married. In a Covid world, allowing outdoor ceremonies also has the benefit of reducing the potential risk of viral transmission between guests. It will give more flexibility to venues to host weddings in various locations on their premises, which will not only boost the wedding industry after a period of hardship but also help deal with the enormous backlog of weddings which has arisen as a result of the innumerable postponements and cancellations over the past year and half.
With this greater flexibility, and with reports that some wedding venues are now booked until 2023, ‘wedding season’ in 2021 may well become a year or even two years long. Before any couple embarks on marriage, it is important to have open and honest discussions about the practicalities of married life, whether it be starting a family, combining finances, thinking about career aspirations or blending two households, and what should happen if the relationship were to break down. This should save both parties the uncertainty, time, money and stress of arguments about finances if there is a separation or divorce. For those couples who have had to postpone their wedding until next year, they have more time to consider putting a cohabitation or pre-nuptial agreement in place addressing and giving legal effect to the couple’s plans and wishes. Even for those hoping to get married sooner rather than later, there is likely still time to make the necessary arrangements.