Is an Islamic wedding legal in the UK?
Updated: Jun 2, 2020
Is an islamic wedding legally valid in the UK?
The Court of Appeal has recently reviewed the law concerning Islamic marriages in the UK.
The couple in question had an Islamic marriage ceremony (“a Nikah”) in a mosque in England. They went through all the due processes, but they both knew that they were not legally married as a result, and they intended to have another wedding at a register office; the husband promised the wife, and members of her family that he would do that, but they never did. They nevertheless regarded themselves as married, and they stayed married for many years, and they had children. For part of the time they lived in Dubai which recognised the Nikah, so they were treated as legally married by the authorities there. But by the time the marriage had broken down they were back in England.
Mr Justice Williams, sitting in the High Court, reviewed the law and, rather valiantly from the perspective of the wife, decided that the Nikah constituted a “void” marriage. The significance of this is that although it meant she had never actually been married, the wife could proceed with a petition for a declaration of nullity and, importantly, she could apply to the court for a financial remedy, including property adjustment orders pension sharing orders, and the other provision a court can make following a declaration of nullity, which is broadly similar to what is available in a divorce. His decision was applauded in various quarters, including charitable bodies and pressure groups, which draw attention to the unfairness widely caused to women in this situation.
But the case went to the Court of Appeal, where Mr Justice Williams’ decision was politely overturned. By this stage the husband and wife were no longer involved, as they had reached private arrangement between themselves, but the case was taken by the Attorney General, who believed that it raised a matter of important legal principle.
The Court of Appeal said* that, as far as the law is concerned, this type of Islamic marriage ceremony in a mosque, does not create any kind of marriage at all, not even a void marriage. They used the term “non qualifying ceremony” to describe the Islamic wedding (and other non legal marriage ceremonies, whether faith-based or not) rather than the older term “non marriage” which is perhaps seen as pejorative, and rather out of date.
This case concerned an Islamic wedding ceremony which took place in England. If the ceremony had taken place overseas different considerations would apply. The detail can be quite complicated, but the principle is that in England and Wales we recognise overseas marriages, providing the parties went through all the due formalities in the country in question. Some countries, including some Islamic countires require the couple to go through a separate process of registering their marriage with the civil authorities, as well as the Islamic or religious ceremony itself, so if they have not done that the marriage might not be recognised as valid in the UK.
*Attorney General v Akhter and Hussain  EWCA
John Pratley is an expert divorce lawyer, who has more than 25 years experience advising clients purely about divorce and related family law issues, such as the financial consequences of separating and divorcing. After establishing the first niche family law practice in Bristol, and going on to senior management roles in a national firm, John set up Apple Tree Family Law in 2018. Apple tree family Law solicitors specialise in advice about divorce and financial issues.
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