For nearly a hundred years the minimum age at which anyone could marry in England and Wales has been 16. That is now changing.
To explain the background to the change, we need to look at a little history.
Parental consent to marriage
In 1929 parliament fixed the minimum age for marriage at 16 years. However, anyone under 21 could only marry with parental consent.
In 1987 the age at which parental consent was not required was reduced to 18, and this has been the law ever since, applying both to marriages and, since their introduction in 2005, civil partnerships.
The number of marriages involving under-18s have actually been quite small, and declining. For example, of nearly 235,000 marriages that took place in 2018, only 134 involved one or both persons who were aged 16 or 17.
But lack of popularity was not the reason for the change.
Research has shown that child marriage (i.e. the marriage of someone under 18) is often associated with leaving education early, limited career and vocational opportunities, serious physical and mental health problems, developmental difficulties for the children born to young mothers, and an increased risk of domestic abuse.
Statistics also show that girls are more likely to be impacted by these things. In England and Wales in 2018, 28 boys married legally under the age of 18 compared with 119 girls.
And it was feared that some of the child marriages were actually forced marriages, consented to by the parents.
Forced marriage is of course a criminal offence, but only if the person uses a type of coercion, for example threats, to cause someone to marry, or if the person lacks capacity to consent to marry.
Raising the age of marriage
To deal with these issues, parliament passed legislation last year to raise the minimum age for marriage and civil partnership in England and Wales to 18. The change will come into force on 27th February 2023.
This means that 16 to 17-year-olds will no longer be able to marry or enter a civil partnership under any circumstances, including with parental consent.
The change is in line with a recommendation by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child that there should be no legal way for anyone to marry before they turn 18, even if there is parental consent.
It is hoped that the change will mean that there is one less obstacle to children completing their education.
Children will also have more time to grow and mature before entering marriage or civil partnership, which is obviously a life-long commitment, with significant legal and financial consequences.
But more particularly the change will protect children from forced marriage. It will expand the criminal offence of forced marriage in England and Wales to make it an offence in all circumstances to do anything intended to cause a child to marry before they turn 18.
It will therefore now be an offence to cause a child under the age of 18 to enter a marriage in any circumstances, without the need to prove that a form of coercion was used.
It is also anticipated that the change means that marriages of under 18s that take place abroad will not be legally recognised in England and Wales, if either party is domiciled in England and Wales.
The change therefore establishes a further obstacle to those seeking to take children abroad to marry, and offers clarity to professionals such as teachers and social workers who are uncertain whether they should report children travelling abroad to marry to the police.
Lastly, and for the sake of completeness, it should be pointed out that any marriage taking place after 26th February involving anyone under the age of 18 will be void.