New minimum marriage age: parental responsibility and child protection

Thu 25th Aug 2022

New laws being introduced from 27 February 2023 will mean that the legal age to get married, or enter a civil partnership, in England and Wales, will be raised to 18 years old. At the moment, a 16 or 17-year-old can get married if they have parental consent – this will not be the case from next year.

The reality is that, in the eyes of the law, 16 or 17-year-olds are still considered children and their parents or legal guardians retain parental responsibility until they turn 18.

It has been recognised that some children will have greater competence to weigh up the pros and cons of making a serious commitment like a marriage. They can make more informed choices about their lifestyle and act independently. Others will have lesser levels of maturity in their welfare decision-making process. There are other concerns that some young people might not be mature enough to make decisions based on adverse influence or peer pressure. There is a need to protect some young individuals.

We have seen a change in recent years with other forms of legislation, for example, until 2007 it was still legal for 16-year-olds to purchase and consume tobacco products. Only last year, the minimum age for playing the National Lottery was increased to 18. The age of consent for a sexual relationship, however, remains at 16.

What difference will it make?

Introduced in June 2021, the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill applies to England and Wales only. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, the age remains at 16-years old.

Seen as a form of child abuse, adults found to be ‘forcing’ a child into marriage or facilitating underage marriages will now face tough penalties. These include fines and a prison sentence of up to seven years.

Forced marriage

A forced marriage is where one or both people do not or cannot consent to marriage as they are pressurised, or abuse is used, to force them to do so.

There have been laws against forced marriage for some time, however, previously you could only achieve a remedy if a victim gave evidence against the perpetrator or made a formal complaint, after the event.

Official statistics appear to show that whilst the number of child marriages having taken place are relatively low, this new law aims to protect more vulnerable young people.

This new legislation also creates a separate criminal offence if an adult is found to facilitate underage marriage and acts as a deterrent for a child to be married against their will.

Does the law strengthen child protection?

The new law must be welcomed and, of course, it serves to strengthen existing legislation around child protection. This helps to ensure that no one else can give consent to marriage on behalf of a child and stops an abuse of the law in that regard.

We know from our work in child protection that parental responsibility is not always used in ways that are conducive to a child’s best interests. Therefore, we have strict and long-standing laws in the UK for the authorities to step in where necessary.

There have been children coerced into marriage, going against their real wishes and this new law helps to reinforce and prevent this from happening. It protects vulnerable children and those most at risk of abuse from significant harm.

A greater armoury?

These new changes to the law will, undoubtedly, add greater armoury to the child protection tools designed to safeguard the most vulnerable children.

In addition to this law, there remains the ability to seek Non-Molestation Orders under the Family Law Act 1996, which protect victims of domestic abuse. This can include child victims where appropriate. Coodes can assist in obtaining such orders and can advise on eligibility for Legal Aid.

For further information and advice on these issues, please contact Christopher Johns in Coodes Solicitors’ Family Team on 01872 246222 or email christopher.johns@coodes.co.uk

Thu 25th Aug 2022

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