A Guide to Civil Wedding Ceremonies in the UK

Your ultimate guide to planning a civil wedding ceremony in the UK

The civil ceremony, since the amendment of the Marriage Act in 1995, has become the most popular form (60% of the total) of marriage ceremony in England and Wales. Non-government buildings can now be licensed for civil ceremonies and partnerships, which has, among other things, led to the development of a whole industry of dedicated country house wedding venues.

Civil Wedding Ceremonies and Partnerships in England and Wales

Couples have been spoilt for choice for a vast array of wedding venues on offer since the residency restrictions in the Marriage Act were amended in 1994 to allow couples to hold their civil ceremony in any district. This is also the case for civil partnerships, which were granted under the Civil Partnership Act of 2004. 

Contrary to common belief, a civil ceremony doesn’t dictate a drive-through, Vegas-style affair. A civil ceremony is simply a non-religious, legal marriage, which is presided over by a legal official instead of a religious one. 

The first step is to visit the Registrar's Office in the district you live, where you will be advised on the procedures involved and any specific legal issues that may be applicable to your situation. 

Most marriages or civil partnerships require at least 28 full days notice of marriage. You should make this visit as soon as you can, even if you’re planning on getting married at a licensed venue in a different district, as you will still need to give notice at your local Registrar's Office. 

You will need to take evidence of your name, date of birth, nationality and place of residency. Your notice will then be publicly displayed in the registry office for 28 days, after which time, the Superintendent Registrar will issue the certificate allowing the marriage to take place, providing no objections to the marriage have been received. You must get married or register your civil partnership within one year of this date.

Divorces and Second Marriages

Providing the legal requirements can be fulfilled, a divorced person can be married in a civil ceremony.  Once a divorce agreement has been reached, a ‘Decree Nisi’ will be issued, however, in order for a second marriage to go ahead, a ‘Decree Absolute’ is required. This can only be applied for 6 weeks (and one day) after the ‘Decree Nisi’ has been granted. 

What Happens During a Civil Wedding Ceremony

Whether a registry office or a licensed venue, the Registrar will be required to have a brief meeting before the ceremony begins to ensure everything is in order. This is usually a private meeting in a separate room, during which the guests will be taking their seats and waiting for the ceremony to start. 

Although a civil ceremony or partnership is fairly short and to the point (usually between 20-25 minutes), couples are encouraged to incorporate words, poems and music into the service, providing there is no religious connotation. 

You must exchange vows in order to be legally married, although in civil partnerships this is not necessary, but you can do so if you wish. Having been declared married, the couple then signs the register, along with their two witnesses and the Registrar. As it is illegal for the register to be copied, photographs are usually prohibited at this point, however once everything has been signed, a blank copy is usually provided and the couple are then able to pose for guests. 

The couple then leaves in order to have more photographs taken and to make their way to their Reception venue.

The Legalities of a Civil Wedding Ceremony

You can get married or form a civil partnership in the UK providing you’re:

  • 16 or over 
  • Free to marry or form a civil partnership
  • Not closely related

Only same-sex couples can form a partnership.

Civil Ceremonies: Things to Think About

If you’re getting married in a licensed venue, you’ll be free (and encouraged) to decorate the room your ceremony will be taking place in.  You should, however, consult both your wedding venue and the Registrar conducting the marriage, as you’ll need approval beforehand. 

Couples wishing to have photographs or a video taken during the service (by guests or a professional) must seek permission from the Registrar in advance, since this is at his/her discretion.

Outdoor Wedding Ceremonies

Strictly, the registry book itself must remain indoors during the ceremony. Amazingly enough this is because washable ink has historically been used and so rain on the book would wreak havoc. The definition of 'indoors', however, does allow for certain ceremonies to look like they're happening outside.