By Stephanie Pywell, Open University
The law of England and Wales provides that a couple should be able to marry in a minimal ‘2+2’ civil ceremony – a ceremony conducted by a superintendent registrar in the presence of a registrar and two witnesses – for £127. This comprises £35 per person for giving notice of intention to marry (assuming that the person is a UK citizen; if not, it costs more), £46 for the ceremony, and £11 for one copy of the marriage certificate.
An empirical project with Professor Rebecca Probert (University of Exeter) had suggested that some couples who wished to marry in 2+2s had found it difficult to find out about these ceremonies, and/or had had to pay more than £127 to do so. In October and November 2019 I systematically explored the websites of 34 of the 174 local authorities in England and Wales, stratified so that I chose roughly 20% of each type of local authority (county, metropolitan borough, unitary authority, London borough, Welsh unitary authority), and covered as wide a geographic area as possible. My aim was to find out the ease of locating the relevant information (measured by the time it took me), the cost and availability of a 2+2, and the terminology used to describe such a ceremony.
The results varied widely: it took me 47 seconds to find the information on Hertfordshire’s website, and 13 minutes 26 seconds on Anglesey’s. I found no mention of a £46 ceremony on four websites after 15 minutes’ searching: the cheapest ceremonies offered by Windsor and Maidenhead were £240, Bromley £220, Ealing £170, and East Sussex £74. I use the internet for research almost every working day, and I knew exactly what I was looking for, so it is likely that some couples would simply never find the information about £46 ceremonies. This would effectively deprive them of an option to which they are legally entitled.
The cost of the marriage certificate was £11, and the cost for giving notice £35 per UK citizen, in all areas, though not all the websites made it clear that the latter was a per-person cost. Based on information on several websites, a couple could gain the impression that the cost of giving notice was £35 in total. Ealing was unique in my sample in imposing an additional £5 per person ‘admin fee’ for giving notice; the justification for this is unclear.
Nine websites indicated that couples would have to pay booking fees – ranging from £27 in Barnsley to £120 in Barking and Dagenham – in addition to ceremony fees. I found that it was possible for two UK citizens to marry for £127 in only 20 areas: Anglesey (assuming that the cost of notices, which is not stated on the website, is £70), Camden, Cardiff, Derbyshire, Herefordshire, Hertfordshire, Kensington and Chelsea, Manchester, Milton Keynes, Oxfordshire, Pembrokeshire, Peterborough, Powys, Somerset, Southend-on-Sea, Southwark, Sunderland, Swindon, Torbay, and Walsall. The minimum costs suggested by the other 14 areas’ websites are shown below. Some of these local authorities have complied with the letter of the law, but appear to be flouting its spirit.
|Local authority||Ceremony||Notices||Certificate (if not included in ceremony fee)||Booking fee||Total|
|Windsor and Maidenhead||£240||£70||£11||£321|
|Barking and Dagenham||£57||£70||£120||£247|
|Isle of Wight||£46||£70||£11||£45||£172|
|Bradford and Keighley *||£57||£70||£40||£167|
|Redcar and Cleveland||£46||£70||£11||£33||£160|
|Cheshire West and Chester||£58||£70||£128|
*Cost of notices assumed to be only £70; information not on website
There were vast differences in the way that the information about the availability of minimal ceremonies was presented: nine websites did not indicate the days or times when minimal ceremonies were available. A few specified time slots, but most mentioned spans of time, with no indication of whether the last ceremony had to start or end at the later time, and some used wording like ‘Tuesday mornings’. Most websites offered minimal ceremonies in only one register office, even if there were several register offices in the area. This vagueness made it impossible to work out accurately how many 2+2s could take place in a week, so I made a number of assumptions to facilitate estimates of the maximum number of weekly slots. These were that areas with multiple register offices offer all their slots in every register office unless otherwise stated, that that each slot lasts thirty minutes, that there are no breaks in specified time intervals, and that there are six slots in a half-day, and 12 in a day.
I obtained census information about the number of people of marriageable age, and divided it by the number of slots per week multiplied by the number of venues at which minimal ceremonies are available. This gives a very approximate indication of the level of provision, which ranges from 928 people per slot per week in Powys to 139,800 people per slot per week in neighbouring Herefordshire. The mean and median figures for the 25 areas for which it was possible to make estimates were, respectively, approximately 40,000 and 35,000 people per slot per week. My instinctive sense that one weekly slot for the population of a medium-sized town is insufficient is borne out by my hearing of one couple who eventually opted for a non-minimal ceremony because no minimal slot was available at their local register office for more than a year.
The last thing that I examined was the terminology used to refer to minimal ceremonies. This ranged from East Sussex’s prosaic ‘statutory registration of marriage’ to Southend-on-Sea’s ‘small and intimate ceremony for just yourselves, two witnesses and a few family or friends’. The language on some websites seems deliberately chosen to dissuade couples from opting for minimal ceremonies. I have been told that the response to one couple’s request for a minimal ceremony was so negative that they decided to marry in a neighbouring district.
These findings suggest that some couples are being denied – either directly, or indirectly – the option of marrying for the prescribed cost, near to their homes, within a reasonable timescale.
The Law Commission is currently conducting a review of the law governing weddings, and I hope that it will recommend that all the information about ceremony types and fees should be readily accessible to everyone who visits a local authority’s website, that the ‘prescribed’ fees should be the actual – and only – fees charged for a minimal wedding ceremony in England and Wales, and that there should be enough slots for 2+2s to meet the demand. If that happened, and if the recommendations became law, it would end the absurdity that a couple’s chance of marrying locally for £127 in a 2+2 is determined principally by where they live.
 Unpublished findings from the study reported in S Pywell and R Probert, ‘Neither sacred nor profane: the permitted content of civil marriage ceremonies’  CFLQ 415.
This post was originally due to be presented as part of the Family Law Stream at the Annual SLSA Conference 2020, hosted by Portsmouth University.