After years of campaigning by organisations such as Girls Not Brides Coalition, the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act came into force this week.

This legislation has increased the legal age of marriage and civil partnerships to 18 in England and Wales. It is now a criminal offence for any person to cause a child to enter into a marriage before their 18th Birthday, whether or not they used violence, threats or any other form of coercion or deception (Section 2(2) Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act). Prior to this change in the law, girls and boys aged 16 or 17 could get married with parental consent.

Forced marriage has been a criminal offence in England and Wales since 2014 under Section 121 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act which set out the offence of forced marriage. The legislation provides that a person is guilty of the criminal offence of forced marriage if they use violence, threats or any other form of coercion for the purpose of causing another person to enter into a marriage and believes, or ought reasonably to believe, that the conduct may cause the person to enter into the marriage without free and full consent.

There was evidently a gap in the law. Those aged 16-17 could potentially be exploited by individuals who they trust (including their parents) and enter into a marriage or civil partnership and in the eyes of the law it would be legal. Unless there was violence, threats or any other form of coercion resulting in a lack of free and full consent, then it was not a criminal offence for a 16 or 17-year-old to marry (with parental consent). It was clearly perverse that an individual who was still classed as a minor could enter into a marriage or civil partnership. Farleys Solicitors have acted for survivors of child marriages who entered into these marriages at the age of 16 following years of grooming and lack of intervention from local authorities.

The key distinction between these two pieces of legislation is that it is now a criminal offence to cause a child, a person under the age of 18, to marry under any circumstances. There is no requirement that the individual whose conduct caused the marriage to have used violence, threats, coercion or deception. Furthermore, parental consent or judicial consent is ineffective. The law now simply prohibits children under the age of 18 from getting married or entering into a civil partnership.

This legislation seeks to act as a safeguard for vulnerable children from being groomed into illegal marriages. The custodial sentence for those convicted of an offence of child marriage can be up to 7 years.

Farleys Solicitors welcomes the long-overdue change in the law and we believe that this is the first step in the right direction for protecting vulnerable children from exploitation of abusive adults.

Here at Farleys Solicitors act on behalf of survivors of child marriage who have been groomed and suffered both sexual and physical abuse. We understand that individuals subjected to this form of abuse may not recognise that what has happened to them is indeed abuse or recognise the impact of the abuse.

If you or someone you know is a survivor of child marriage, sexual abuse, or physical abuse we are available to discuss this with you in confidence. Contact us on our dedicated abuse line on 0330 134 6430, by email, or by using the chat button below.