Weekly Family Law Update August 17, 2022

Latest figures show continued decline in marriage rates

The Office for National Statistics (‘ONS’) has published its latest annual statistics for marriages in England and Wales, for 2019.

The statistics show that the decline in marriage rates, which has been happening for many years, is continuing.

Lowest on record

The headline figure in the statistics is that there were 219,850 marriages in total in England and Wales in 2019, which is a decrease of 6.4% from 2018.

Of those marriages, 213,122 were between opposite-sex couples, which is a decrease of 6.5% from 2018, and 6,728 were between same-sex couples, which is a decrease of 2.8% from 2018 (same-sex marriage first became possible in 2014).

The figure of 219,850 represents the largest annual decrease in marriages since 2012, and is the lowest number of marriages since 1893. Marriage rates for opposite-sex couples have actually fallen to their lowest on record since 1862.

There has been a gradual decline in the number of marriages since the early 1970s, when the Divorce Reform Act made divorce much easier than it had been previously.

Commenting upon the figures Dr James Tucker, Head of Health and Life Events Analysis at the ONS, speculated as to the reasons for the decline. He said:

“The number of opposite-sex marriages has fallen by 50% since 1972. This decline is a likely consequence of increasing numbers of men and women delaying marriage, or couples choosing to live together rather than marry, either as a precursor to marriage or as an alternative.”

What it could mean?

In fact, data previously published by the ONS has already confirmed that many couples are now choosing to live together as an alternative to getting married.

That data showed that the number of cohabiting couple families in the UK increased by 22.9 per cent in the ten years to 2021, from about 2.9 million to 3.6 million. (In 2021 there were 12.6 million married couple families in the UK.)

Clearly, there is a long-term trend away from marriage towards simply living together without ‘tying the knot’.

What could this mean for family law?

Well, contrary to what many believe you do not gain the same legal rights as a married couple by simply living together, no matter how long the relationship.

When a married person gets divorced they can seek financial support from their (former) spouse. That support can take many forms, including maintenance, housing provision, and a share of the spouse’s pension.

When a person’s cohabiting relationship breaks down they have no automatic right to make any financial claim from their former partner.

This can leave many former cohabitants in serious financial difficulties, despite the contribution that they may have made to the relationship, including bringing up any children.

With the decline in marriage and the rise in cohabitation, perhaps it is time to give at least limited rights to former cohabitees?

What else do the statistics tell us?

The statistics do not just state the number of marriages. Amongst other things, they also give an indication of the age at which people are getting married, and their previous marital status.

As to age, the average age at marriage for opposite-sex couples in 2019 was 34.3 years for men and 32.3 years for women. This is a slight increase from 2018 for both men and women, and this continues the trend of the overall rise in average age at marriage since the early 1970s.

For same-sex couples the average age at marriage was higher, at 38.1 years for men and 33.8 years for women.

And as to marital status, among marriages of opposite-sex couples in 2019, more than three-quarters of men and women (76.1% and 77.1%, respectively) married for the first time. Among same-sex couples, first marriages were slightly higher with 89.3% of men and 81.8% of women marrying for the first time, although this was obviously to be expected, given the relatively short time since same-sex marriage became possible.

Lastly, and still on the subject of same-sex marriage, 578 same-sex civil partnerships were converted into marriages in 2019 (same-sex civil partners have been able to convert their existing civil partnership into a marriage since 2014).

All in all, the statistics may show a decline in marriage rates, but marriage clearly remains very popular, and is still by some margin the favoured relationship status.