Draft Marriage (Northern Ireland) Order 2003

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Lady Hermon: Article 5 says that the registrar

    ''may require the person giving the notice to provide him with''

such details as name, age, marital status and nationality. In addition to the hon. Gentleman's query about addresses, it would be interesting to hear why nationality should be requested of a party. As the Minister knows, human rights legislation guarantees people the right to enter into marriage without any discrimination, which includes discrimination on the grounds of nationality.

Mr. Wilshire: I am grateful to the hon. Lady. She has anticipated some of my questions, one of which was about that matter.

It would be interesting to hear why the venue of the ceremony and the addresses of the parties are not included. As the hon. Lady says, nationality is referred to in article 5(3). There is also no reference to address. I wonder whether the reference to age in article 5(3)(b) is sufficiently accurate. I am surprised not to find date of birth, which is important if one is trying to tell the difference between two people with similar names. Age can be anything within a twelvemonth, whereas date of birth is much more precise, and would enable people to check. I would be grateful if the Minister could help us on that point.

Article 6(4)(b) refers to taking ''all reasonable steps''. I am not a lawyer, which is probably why I become nervous about that phrase. Whenever I see it in legislation, I find myself asking the Minister concerned for the definitions of ''reasonable'' and ''steps''. The phrase is very general and could usefully be clarified. In a future dispute, it would help at least to have in Hansard a definition of what the relevant Minister considered reasonable, and the steps that he had in mind.

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The explanatory memorandum suggests that the order is administrative rather than to do with the concept of marriage as an institution, but article 6(6)(e) blows that assertion out of the water. I am sure that you would rule anyone out of order, including me, Mr. O'Brien, if we were to get locked into a debate about whether marriage should be same sex as well as for two sexes, but the sub-paragraph is a statement of a cultural, moral and ethical view. It does not stand well with the explanatory memorandum. In view of the fact that the Government have announced their interest in a review and discussion of civil relationships—they may or may not be called marriages—we cannot let that sub-paragraph pass without pointing out that it goes well beyond a simple administrative tidying up.

The Chairman: Order. I hope that hon. Members will not enter into a dialogue on that issue. We are considering the situation as it now features in common law, so we should address that.

Mr. Wilshire: I accept that, Mr. O'Brien, which is why I said that I did not think that you would welcome a general debate on the subject in general terms. I flag it up none the less.

Article 7 is about the marriage schedule. Paragraph (3) states:

    ''Subject to paragraphs (4) to (6), a religious marriage may be solemnised only on the date''.

However, paragraph (6) then says:

    ''Regulations may make provision for any case in which for any reason a marriage cannot be solemnised in accordance with the marriage schedule.''

That seems confusing. The article seems to suggest validity only on a specific day, but then further down states that the arrangements could be, I assume, for any day. Will the Minister clarify that? If paragraph (6) allows any day stated in the regulations, why does paragraph (3) allow only the date in the marriage schedule?

Article 10 raises two issues on which it would be easy to stray into a general debate. I shall try not to do that, and to keep in order. Paragraph (2) states:

    ''The Registrar General shall refuse to register a person under Article 11 if he considers that . . . the body making the application is not a religious body''.

That is far removed from an administrative arrangement. It is not a party political point, but the Government of the day are setting themselves up as the arbiters of what is and what is not a religious body. It would help if the Minister said on what grounds such a decision would be made. What issues and factors would be taken into account? Trying to define what is a religion and what is not has taxed the mind of many a philosopher over many centuries. The point needs clarification.

Lady Hermon: Is the hon. Gentleman taking issue with the definition of a religious body in article 2:

    ''an organised group of people meeting regularly for common religious worship''?

Does he have difficulty with that?

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Mr. Wilshire: Yes, I do, because that merely shifts the problem away from defining a religious body to asking what worship is. Defining worship involves making subjective value judgments about what is being done to whom in the name of what. I am worried when a Government—this or any other—seek to decide what constitutes a religious body. Similarly, sub-paragraph (c) says that the Registrar General shall refuse to register a person if he considers that

    ''the person named in the application is not a fit and proper person to solemnise a marriage.''

That is a hugely subjective judgment. However many definitions we have, somewhere along the line a value judgment has to be made about suitability. Would the Minister put on record how the decision is to be made, who he considers to be a fit and proper person and, more to the point, who or what he considers should not be registered as such? Those are difficult issues.

Under article 12(1),

    ''The Registrar General may cancel the registration of a person under Article 11 on the ground—''

that, under sub-paragraph (d)(ii), the person

    ''has, for the purpose of profit or gain, carried on a business of solemnising marriages''.

I know what is intended but, so that there is no misunderstanding, can the Minister clarify that that would not include charging people to be married in church—a long-standing practice? How often would a body have to have performed marriages before the occasional wedding became a business?

My non-legal approach to such matters leaves me nervous about article 12(1)(d)(iv), which indicates that the Registrar General may cancel the registration

    ''for any other reason''.

I always worry about the phrase ''any other reason''. It suggests that the draftsmen have tried hard to list all the reasons why something might happen and put that catch-all in at the end in case they have forgotten anything. That is pointless; either the list is complete or it is not. If it is not, what other reasons has the Minister in mind?

Article 15(1)(c) states:

    ''A religious marriage shall not be solemnised by an officiant unless . . . two persons professing to be 16 or over are present as witnesses.''

Knowing that lawyers are economical with their words, if not with their bills, I would find it helpful to know why the words ''professing to be'' are used instead of ''are''. I was also surprised by the requirement in article 15(1)(b) that both parties to the marriage must be present. It had not occurred to me that it was possible for that not to be the case. Can the Minister explain why that stipulation is felt to be necessary?

Mr. Pearson: It is generally desirable.

Mr. Wilshire: My other concern about article 15 is that it states what must happen for the marriage to be valid. If, unbeknown to the people at the time, an oversight causes something to be done wrongly, what is the status of the marriage? Is it legal, or can a technicality mean that those people, who thought that they were married, are not? That is far more than a

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pedantic point. There are significant financial implications for those people under inheritance and tax laws, should a disaster overtake one of them. It is a serious matter for them to know whether a mistake made without their knowledge might invalidate the ceremony.

Article 17, which is headed ''Registrar's power to require delivery of marriage schedule'' states, in paragraph (2), what must happen, how long an interval is permitted for the delivery of the schedule, and what is to happen if it is not delivered. Again, I want to raise a question for the avoidance of doubt. I think that article 25 provides clarification, but I should be grateful for the Minister's confirmation that even if the schedule is not delivered, the marriage will still be valid.

Article 18 deals with civil marriages, and paragraph (3) states:

    ''The Department may by regulations make provision for or in connection with the approval of places under paragraph (2).''

Among the matters as to which regulations under paragraph (3) may in particular include provision, paragraph (4)(c) specifies:

    ''the considerations to be taken into account in determining whether to approve any places''.

What guidelines will there be about suitability?

I notice that, for anyone who cannot, because of illness or injury, be moved from hospital or wherever else they might be, article 18(6)(b) provides that a doctor must state that

    ''it is likely that it will be the case for at least the following three months''.

Why three months? Is it suggested that if someone will not be ill or laid up through injury for three months, the ceremony can be put off, but that if the illness or injury will last for three months and a day, that should not happen? It occurs to me that if a couple has made plans to get married on a particular day it may not be unreasonable to decide that the marriage should go ahead on the day in question, in a suitable place, even if illness or injury intervenes. I wonder why the three months rule is thought necessary.

Lady Hermon: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his patience in taking several interventions. I welcome his comments, because of their relevance to people who are terminally ill, perhaps in a hospice. A friend of mine was in that situation, and we welcomed the fact that it was possible for a person to be married in a hospice and have some time with their spouse.

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