Skip to main content


When is a wedding not a marriage? Exploring non-legally binding ceremonies

1 January 2021 - 30 January 2022

PI/s in Exeter: Tania Barton, Professor Rebecca Probert

Research partners: Dr Rajnaara Akhtar, Demontfort University. Dr Vishal Vora, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. Sharon Blake (University of Exeter)

Sponsor(s): Nuffield Foundation

Project webpage(s)

When is a wedding not a marriage? Exploring non-legally binding ceremonies

About the research

The aim of this project is to investigate why marriage ceremonies occur outside of the legal framework for weddings in England and Wales. There is evidence to suggest a growing number of couples are going through ‘wedding’ ceremonies that are not legally binding. Some individuals who have taken part in these ceremonies wrongly believe themselves to be legally married, leaving them financially vulnerable if their partner dies or the relationship ends. Other couples may choose non-legally-binding ceremonies in order to avoid financial ties, to ensure they cannot be prosecuted for bigamy, or because it is the only way to have a wedding ceremony in the form or place they find meaningful. There is concern that these non-legally-binding marriage ceremonies may be particularly common among certain religious and secular groups, raising questions about whether the law is fit for purpose in a multicultural society. In light of these issues, the Law Commission is undertaking a wide-ranging review of marriage law, while the Government is investigating the possibility of criminalising those who conduct non-legally-binding ceremonies.

This project will inform both reviews by investigating why marriage ceremonies are being conducted outside the legal framework; the nature of these ceremonies; the beliefs, practices and desires of those involved; and how proposed reforms could work. It also aims to raise awareness of the law among those who are conducting or participating in these ceremonies, ensuring they are fully informed of potential outcomes.