The full rigour of formalities that must be gone through in order to solemnise a marriage have been upheld in a landmark case. The Court of Appeal found that a ceremony performed in a restaurant which was not registered as an authorised wedding venue was a 'non-marriage' with no legal effect whatsoever.
Early on in their long relationship, which yielded four children, a former couple went through a nikah – a form of Islamic marriage ceremony – in the restaurant. Due to the venue's lack of registration, they were aware that the ceremony did not create a valid marriage. They intended to make good that deficiency by going through a second, civil, marriage ceremony, but that was never done.
After the relationship ended, an issue arose as to whether the ceremony had created a marriage that was void, due to its failure to comply with the formal requirements of the Marriage Act 1949, or no marriage at all. The distinction was a critical one in that, if it were a non-marriage – as the man asserted – the woman would have no right to seek financial orders against him under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973.
In finding in the woman's favour that it was a void marriage, a family judge ruled that the 1949 Act should be read in the light of human rights legislation, which enshrines the right to respect for family life and the right to marry and found a family. He was particularly influenced by the position of the children of the family. The woman was granted a decree nisi of nullity, which opened the way for her to seek financial remedies against the man.
The former couple had settled their differences since the judge's decision but, given the general public importance of the issues raised and their relevance to other similar cases, the Court entertained an appeal against the ruling, brought by the Attorney General, and took the opportunity to clarify the law.
In allowing the appeal, the Court found that the restaurant event was a non-marriage in that the former couple had not thereby intended to marry under the provisions of the 1949 Act. The effect of the ceremony had to be determined as at the date it was performed and it thus made no difference that they had intended to proceed to a civil ceremony in due course. Their intention to marry at some future date provided no justification for changing the effect of the ceremony that in fact took place.
The Court emphasised the importance of couples knowing with certainty whether or not they are validly married. A ruling in the wife's favour would extend the law in a way that would fundamentally undermine the manner in which the status of marriage is created and the necessary degree of certainty that underpins the required formalities.