The consultation is being managed by Civil Law Reform Division in the Departmental Solicitors’ Office. Consultation will close on 18 February 2022.
Changing the marriage laws to include belief marriage will put belief marriage on an equal footing with religious marriage. This follows the judgments of the High Court and the Court of Appeal in the case of Re Smyth in 2017 (2017 NIQB 55 and 2018 NIQB 25). It is our opinion that these judgments create an obligation to include belief marriage in our marriage law.
While belief marriages have been able to take place on foot of the court cases, and will continue to do so, the present arrangements relating to such marriages are temporary, and legislative change will be needed to give full effect to the judgments. Our consultation will therefore be seeking views solely on the detail of this change.
The minimum age at which a person can marry or enter into a civil partnership is entirely separate from the issue of belief marriage. Under current law, people aged 16 and 17 can marry, or form a civil partnership, conditional on parental consent. (No consents are required for people aged 18 and over).
The United Nations Committee with oversight for the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) has criticised the availability of marriage and civil partnerships to those under the age of 18 in all jurisdictions that permit it. This is part of a wider campaign against child marriage that has been supported by international NGOs as well as by local groups and stakeholders.
However, we are under no obligation to legislate on minimum age. The principal purpose of the present consultation in respect of minimum age is therefore to collect as diverse a range of views as possible on that subject on the understanding that these might influence future policy debate.