No more child marriages: minimum age raised to 18 in England and Wales

What age did you get married? Your answer probably depends on your age.

In 1970, the average age for men to get married was 27, and for women 25. In 2018, that has risen to 38 for men and 36 for women.

So, as more and more couples decide to get married later in life, why has parliament just raised the minimum age for marriage to 18?

According to MP Pauline Latham, who sponsored the Bill:

“The whole motivation is mainly young girls who cannot sign any documents legally - because they're not of age - are being coerced into marriage … They are being married in this country - sometimes with a civil ceremony - but sometimes just a religious ceremony … At 16 you're not going to go against your parents because you're still so dependent on them. At 18 it's much easier to cope with standing up to your parents and say 'no this isn't what I want'."

The new Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022 raises the minimum legal age for marriage and civil partnerships in England and Wales from 16 to 18. Previously, under the Marriage Act 1949, a marriage at age 16 could go ahead with parental consent.


Under 18s marriages in the UK

The numbers may be small, but they are significant. According to the Office for National Statistics, 183 people under the age of 18 got married with parental consent in 2017, of which 140 were girls.

The new Act applies to all marriages, including cultural and religious marriages that are not registered by the couple with a local council. With underage marriages not officially recorded, charities say that this amounts to an issue “hidden in plain sight”.

The Act doesn’t prevent young people cohabiting or entering into a committed relationship of course. However, for young people in a relationship, the new Act may just give them pause for thought before entering into a commitment as serious as marriage.


Facilitating a marriage

Campaigners have long argued that “parental consent” can be more a case of “parental coercion” amongst children married aged 16 or 17.

The Act now makes it an offence for an adult to facilitate a marriage involving children under the age of 18. This includes taking underage children abroad for a forced marriage, and applies even if the child has consented to the marriage. Anyone found guilty of helping to facilitate a forced marriage faces up to seven years in prison and a fine.


Age 18 – key to the door

In the UK, your 18th birthday is a big deal, marking your transition from childhood to adulthood. The tradition of giving a key to the door has shifted from age 21 to age 18 to reflect this. However, it’s not a fixed minimum age for many important elements of a young person’s life in England and Wales.

  • The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is 10 years old. Up to age 18, convicted children are detained in a special secure centre.
  • Children can work from age 13 but not during school hours and no more than 12 hours per week.
  • Teenagers can apply for a provisional driving licence when they are 15 years and 9 months old, and start driving a car aged 17.
  • Young people can leave school aged 16 but must stay in full-time education, start an apprenticeship or work for 20hrs or more while in part-time education.
  • The age of sexual consent is 16.
  • You can apply for an adult passport when you are aged 16 or over.
  • If you are aged 16-18, you cannot legally work for longer than eight hours in a 24-hour period, or for more than 40 hours a week.
  • The legal drinking age is 18.
  • You can buy tobacco from age 18 (and there are plans to raise this to age 21)
  • You cannot (now) marry under the age of 18 in England and Wales.
  • You cannot vote in UK parliamentary elections until the age of 18.
  • You must be aged over 18 to stand as an MP for the UK parliament.

As family lawyers, we help many divorcing couples draw up financial agreements and co-parenting child arrangements for their children up to the age of 18.


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