Young Love, Free Will And Forced Marriage: New Rules To Prevent Abuse
Published on 27 February, 2023 | Sarah Hewitt
Times change and so too do the patterns in how couples of all ages form relationships.
Data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) provides a constant reminder of great successive shifts in households across England and Wales.
For instance, the number of marriages in England and Wales has fallen by 45 per cent in the last 50 years (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/marriagecohabitationandcivilpartnerships/bulletins/marriagesinenglandandwalesprovisional/2019).
Whilst many commentators have interpreted that as demonstrating marriage is going out of fashion for most age groups, it doesn’t mean that there’s been a reduction in people actually living together.
Fifty years ago, there was undoubtedly something of a social stigma attached to unmarried relationships but it is now something of a norm.
In the last decade, in fact, the number of cohabiting couples increased by almost a quarter to 3.6 million (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/families/bulletins/familiesandhouseholds/2021#families-and-households-data).
Cohabitation is particularly common in younger age groups. In 2021, 95 per cent of individuals aged between 16 and 19 who were living as a couple were doing so without having married (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/householdcharacteristics/homeinternetandsocialmediausage/articles/livingarrangementsofpeopleinenglandandwales/census2021).
It will arguably be an even more relevant relationship option for that age group given a notable change in the law which has now come into force.
Under the terms of the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022, the minimum age at which people in England and Wales can marry has been increased from 16 to 18-years-old (https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2022/28/pdfs/ukpgaen_20220028_en.pdf).
The step has been taken to address the “risks associated with” forced child marriages or civil partnerships.
Under the previous legislative regime, forced marriage was only an offence if someone seeking to engineer it used threats or violence or if the minor involved lacked the mental capacity to consent.
From now on, anyone guilty of “any conduct” – whether or not it includes coercion, threats, actual violence or deception – designed to bring about the marriage of a child before his or her 18th birthday can face prosecution.
The penalties are severe too, with a maximum jail term of seven years if the matter is dealt with by a Crown Court.
In my opinion, anything which safeguards the welfare of individuals who might be forced into marriage or civil partnership is a step in the right direction.
Men and women who wish to form relationships should be able to do so with their own free will and not at the behest of anybody else.
It will, though, cause some people to question just how many people might be affected by the change.
Whilst the most recent data doesn’t allow us to see the number of civil partnerships or same-sex marriages involving individuals aged 16 or 17, it shows that, in 2019, there were 139 men and women of that age who married – a figure which is 89 per cent lower than the equivalent figure just 25 years ago (1276).
I believe that in addition to providing worthwhile protections to avoid abuse, it’s equally important to offer education to those young couples who decide to cohabit, regardless of whether they have no other choice.
Setting up home with someone should never be a step taken lightly.
Yet successive studies – including a report published last August by the House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee (https://committees.parliament.uk/work/1196/the-rights-of-cohabiting-partners/#:~:text=The%20Women%20and%20Equalities%20Committee,how%20this%20might%20be%20introduced.) – have shown that people of all ages, not just teenagers, still believe in the myth of the common law spouse.
If couples ultimately decide to become man and wife having already lived together, and if those marriages collapse, the time spent as cohabitees will be taken into account when it comes to dividing joint marital assets.
Given that there is still no ability for unmarried couples who break up to make a claim on each others’ assets under family law, some might argue that it’s a discrepancy.
It can certainly also be something of a rude awakening for those unaware of their legal status.
I would suggest that dispelling the common law myth is something best done before individuals establish careers, build homes and have families in order to help them avoid the double-shock of losing a relationship and realising that they then have to fend for their newly-single selves.