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  • John Pratley

When Do People Get Married?

Updated: Apr 9, 2019



On 1 April 2019 the ONS (Office for National Statistics) published its most recent data for marriages in England and Wales. The figures cover the year to December 2016, which is the most recent available owing, primarily, to the delay in the process of collecting data from churches, and other places licensed to carry out ceremonies of marriage.


There were 249,793 marriages in England and Wales in 2016, which is a couple of percentage points up on the previous year but confirms that marriage remains at a historical low, having fallen from a spike of 426,000 in 1972. These figures do not include residents of England and Wales, who get married abroad - they probably number a few thousand more, and it seems likely that that option has increased in popularity since the mid-1970s. Nevertheless the trend is clear.


The statistic for the “rate of marriage” – that is the percentage of unmarried people over the age of 16 who get married in a particular year - is probably a more reliable indicator because it takes account of population growth. That also shows a downward trend and has fallen significantly since the mid-1970s.


The figures also support what most of us believe, which is that people are marrying later in life – the average age of first-time marriage in 2016 was 33.4 years for men, and 31.5 years for women, compared with 25.1 years for men and 22.8 years for women.in the mid-1970s. The average age for marriage overall (including second marriages) is higher at 37.9 years for men and 37.4 years for women which is pushed up by an increase in marriages amongst those over 50. But the point is made most clearly by the startling statistic that only around 1/3 of women, and 1/4 of men, have been married by the age of 30, compared with over 90% of women and over 80% of men in the mid-1970s.


The percentage of people choosing a religious wedding rather than a civil wedding has dropped to below 25% for the first time, although that statistic does not seem to take account of people who have a religious ceremony followed by a civil marriage at a register office.

This pattern, which continues year by year explains why many solicitors who practice in family law, feel increasingly uncomfortable with the very different way the law treats unmarried couples when their relationship breaks down, compared with married couples. Many of us feel that the time is right for some sort of rebalancing of the law, but the political will is never there to support those changes.


The fear amongst politicians seems to be that improving the treatment of unmarried partners would somehow undermine the institution of marriage, and lead to some sort of collapse of family values and a wider social decline.

To those of us who meet a lot of couples who are separating, that seems like nonsense – rather like those who argued that making seatbelts compulsory would encourage dangerous driving. In our generation society seems much more ready to respect those who choose to live in an unmarried relationship, than was the case in our parents’ generation – so the law needs also to recognise and respect those relationships, at least to some extent, when they break down.


There also needs to be a push to raise people’s general awareness of the differences – many people I see are completely unaware that the safety nets which would give them some sort of protection in the context of the divorce are simply not there for unmarried couples.


If anything if you choose not to marry you need to think more carefully about what you do in terms of a declaration of trust or cohabitation agreement, your wills, and particularly your pension arrangements, than you would if you were to marry.


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.


We are based in Bristol and Exeter, but we have clients all over the UK and further afield. We offer, simply, clear and accurate advice about divorce and family law issues, and the very best client service, for a clear and reasonable price.


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