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Latest ONS marriage figures underline need for legal reform

Date:28 FEB 2018
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The Office of National Statistics (ONS) has published Marriages in England and Wales: 2015, reporting on the number of marriages that took place in England and Wales in 2015, analysed by age, sex, previous marital status and civil or religious ceremony.

The report reveals that marriage rates for opposite-sex couples were the lowest on record and that marriages at older ages rose. Legal experts say the statistics underline the need for legal protection for cohabitants and for pre-nuptial agreements to be formally recognised.

Key findings include:

  • There were 239,020 marriages between opposite-sex couples in 2015, a decrease of 3.4% from 2014 when there 247,372 marriages, and 0.8% lower than in 2013.
  • Marriage rates for opposite-sex couples in 2015 were the lowest on record, with 21.7 marriages per thousand unmarried men and 19.8 marriages per thousand unmarried women.

  • In 2015 there were 6,493 marriages between same-sex couples, 56% were between female couples; a further 9,156 same-sex couples converted their civil partnership into a marriage.

  • In 2015, civil ceremonies among opposite-sex couples decreased by 1.6%, while religious ceremonies decreased by 8.0% compared with 2014.
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Nicola Haines, ONS Vital Statistics Outputs Branch, said:

‘Marriage rates for opposite-sex couples are now at their lowest level on record following a gradual long-term decline since the early 1970s. The number of marriages between opposite-sex couples decreased by 3.4% in 2015, compared with 2014.

Despite this overall decline, marriages at older ages rose; the number of weddings increased for men aged 50 and over and women aged 35 to 39 years and 45 and over.

This is the first full year for which marriages were available for same-sex couples and they accounted for 2.6% of all marriages.’

Jo Edwards, Head of Family at Forsters LLP, commented:

‘There are various things that policy makers should take from these statistics:

First, the need for reform of the law for cohabiting couples, so that they have clearer rights at the end of their relationship, whether through separation or the death of one of the parties. The Law Commission advocated reform in this area as long ago as 2007. We are sitting on a ticking time bomb as people sleepwalk their way into cohabiting relationships, without realising that there is no such thing as common law marriage and that they may be severely disadvantaged at the end of the relationship.

Second, the need for a formal footing in law for pre-nuptial agreements. One of the reasons for the phenomenon of “silver splicers” is that around 1 in 3 marriages are second marriages as people are living longer, and in turn people feel more readily able to enter into marriage later in life knowing that nuptial agreements are being respected ever more by English courts. But ideally, as the Law Commission proposed in 2014, they should be given a statutory footing so that there is greater clarity in this area.

It would also be informative if Government were to look again at the way in which marriages are formalised. In late 2015 the Law Commission looked at this area and concluded that the law does not allow people to marry in in a way which meets their needs and wishes and is therefore meaningful for them. The Government responded late last year to say that it has no plans to reform this area of the law. Given societal changes, and the fact that marriage is widely regarded as the most stable relationship within which to raise children, a modern society requires a modern approach towards marriage.’

Deborah Jeff, Partner and Head of Family at Seddons, says:

‘With the number of couples marrying at an all-time low, it is a reflection of how many of us are choosing to make our family arrangements and commitments to each other outside of marriage. But the law still hasn’t caught up and couples are living together without realising the legal rights (or lack of them) and responsibilities arising from that. Until changes are made to the law, this can often lead to significant financial disadvantage for the homemaker.

The best protection is a properly prepared cohabitation agreement, setting out what is intended financially in the event that the relationship ends. But the optimism at the beginning of a relationship means that couples aren’t even considering what happens in a worst case scenario, perhaps mistakenly assuming they are protected by the law in a “common law marriage”. From our recent nationwide polling, only 4% of couples living together had in place a cohabitation agreement, with 79% of cohabiting respondents stating they were not even aware of the existence of cohabitation agreements. More work and education is needed to ensure couples bear in mind the adage “look before you leap” rather than being left financially disadvantaged if the relationship fails.’