Up until last week the answer was no, an Islamic or religious marriage ceremony was not valid the UK. However a recent High Court case has thrown this question into doubt. The Marriage Act 1949 requires a marriage to take place in a register office, approved premises or a place of religious worship such as a Church, Mosque, Temple or Gurdwara that has been officially registered for marriages. It must be in the presence of the Registrar of Marriages or an authorised person, this can be a priest or imam registered by the approved place above.
The couple would therefore either have a separate register office wedding (civil ceremony) in addition to their religious ceremony or if the venue where the religious marriage took place is an approved premises or a place of worship the registration takes place there.
What happens if one person wants a divorce?
This has caused difficulties because many people believe their religious ceremony is all that is required for their marriage to be a legal and valid marriage in the UK despite it not taking place in an approved place or by an authorised person. For example many Islamic marriages (known as nikahs) take place at the person’s home or in a restaurant. The couple may not consider this to be a problem as they see themselves married in the eyes of their religion.
However should they separate and seek a divorce then this is where issues can arise. Without the marriage being recognised as valid, neither party can have a divorce under English law. Not only this they cannot then access financial claims under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1979 (MCA) against the other spouse. Such financial claims can ensure a fair split of the couples’ assets and claims such as spousal maintenance (payments each month from one spouse to the other) can be made under this Act.
High Court decision on the status of a nikah
This is what happened in the High Court case of Nasreen Akhtar (wife) and Mohammed Shabaz Khan (husband). Their nikah took place in a restaurant conducted by an imam in accordance with Islamic law. The venue was not an approved premises and the imam was not an authorised person. They did not follow this religious ceremony up with a civil one at the register office. They went on to have children together and were known by all in their community as husband and wife. They later split up.
The husband claimed they were never married as their marriage was not registered in the UK and therefore a non-valid marriage. The wife claimed their nikah should be classed as a marriage under UK law thus giving her access to making a financial claim under the more generous MCA. The judge, Mr Justice Williams ruled the marriage was valid under UK law.
He said, ‘those that have remained married for a number of years, raised a family and have been treated by all as husband and wife should not have the term non-marriage applied to them.’ The judge however stressed the facts of this case were particular to this couple. Nasreen Akhtar is now free to go on and make a financial claim against her husband which no doubt will see her being afforded a more generous award under the MCA 1979 than she would have received if she were treated as just a cohabitee.
What does this mean for couples embarking on marriage?
So what does this mean for couples about to embark on a religious marriage? Do they need to bother with a separate civil marriage, or even have the ceremony in an approved place? The answer is not clear. The law is now uncertain in this area until further legal guidance is given either by the courts or by Parliament. It would be wise to continue to register all marriages along side the religious marriage until such time as clarification is given.
Not only does this case leave a question mark over the validity of religious marriages but it opens up a whole new debate for people that are vulnerable, married against their will not to mention bogus, sham marriages. At present the Registrar of Marriages or authorised person has been specially trained to ensure probing questions are asked of the couple and the reason for marriage. Surely this safeguard is at risk with this recent decision.
For advice on the legal status of a marriage and the implications in a divorce case please contact our Head of Family Law, Jenny Sharma. First appointments are free and all advice is given in strict confidence.