Marriage certificates: unfit for purpose in the 21st century?

Marriage certificates in England and Wales are no longer fit for purpose, according to campaigners who are seeking a change in the law to overhaul documents that have not been updated since the Victorian era.

The marriage certificate in its current form provides space for the names of the fathers of the bride and groom but not the mothers. Interestingly, civil partnership certificates provide for details of both parents to be included.

Awareness of the issue was increased back in January 2014 when a petition stating “marriage should not be seen as a business transaction between the father of the bride and the father of the groom” gained 70,600 signatures. It seemed at that point there was some traction behind the notion that could have led to a change in the law and David Cameron had voiced support for the change.

A draft bill was tabled in 2016 but Government focus was of course elsewhere (Brexit) and the issue seemed to fall by the wayside.

The government originally said no to the suggestion as it would have involved a costly replacement of register books nationwide. Dr Alan Smith’s Registration of Marriage Bill proposes that a new-style signed document could be uploaded to a digital register.

As the government appears committed to a move towards online systems generally, including divorce, now seems to be the right time to implement an overhaul of the paper-based system and introduce an online divorce register.

Campaigning to date has centred on mothers’ names being added to marriage certificates. This is a clear step towards progress away from the days where marriage commoditised women and was effectively seen as a business transaction between men. However this in itself doesn’t truly reflect today’s society and the modern family.

Consideration should be given to the different types of family structure that exist in England and Wales. Nuclear families are no longer the norm and blended / alternative family structures are rapidly replacing traditional family structures.

If someone has grown up without one of their parents in their lives, they may not see the relevance of that parent being recognised on a marriage certificate. What about cases where someone has been raised by a step parent? Clearly, room for naming a “mother” and a “father” doesn’t cover situations where someone’s parents are a same sex couple.

If marriage certificates are going to be updated then they need to be brought right up to date to reflect the realities of today’s society*.

*It goes without saying that civil partnership certificates should be updated in the same way.

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