THE ‘stay at home’ instructions over the past year have dramatically increased the time families spend together. Perhaps to the surprise of many sceptics of the family model, a study from Essex University found that 20 per cent of married couples reported their relationship had been strengthened during the pandemic despite the immense pressures put on them, compared with ten per cent who said it got worse. The number of parents considering divorces had also shrunk.
Yet the ability of couples to marry has been tremendously restricted under coronavirus regulations; legal rules to date have changed no fewer than 65 times nationally and locally, averaging more than once per week since February.
To make the legislation easier to understand, government guidance has also been regularly updated to ‘offer [citizens] the best or most appropriate way to adhere to the law’. It is the guidance, not the intricate and confusing legislation, that is read by the majority of citizens who will have little legal training or the appetite to trawl through pages of repeatedly amended law. However, this poorly written guidance is causing would-be married couples increasing confusion about what they can and cannot do, a theme which has been prominent over the past year when the guidance has gone further than the law.
As of national lockdown 3.0, government guidance has led lay readers to conclude that marriages are all but banned in England, sparking cancellations and further delays to ceremonies:
‘Weddings and civil partnership ceremonies must only take place with up to 6 people. These should only take place in exceptional circumstances, for example, an urgent marriage [where one person is facing a life-threatening illness].’
There is no link to any other relevant wedding guidance or supplementary instructions, therefore implying that weddings are banned apart from when one person is severely ill. Yet hidden in the verbiage of the 65th edition of the legislation is the technical legal possibility for weddings attended by up to six people during the English lockdown even when both parties are medically fit.
The government guidance therefore fails on three accounts. First, by being misleading, it neglects the purposes of being sufficiently clear and intelligible – a significant failure under the Rule of Law. Second, it has led many couples to delay weddings further and assume that, contrary to the UK’s obligations under Article 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the human right to marry has been somehow rescinded. Third, it entrenches the state’s perceived lack of regard for the institution of marriage. As well as marketing a perspective that the ability to wed is not societally important, the guidance has the effect instead of promoting the cohabitation of couples against legal commitment and deterring couples with religious convictions from entering into a registered marriage covenant.
By contrast, the opportunity for married couples to pursue divorce is easier than it has ever been and can be initiated simply by using an online form. Parliament took the time to pass the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act in June which brought couples the option of ‘no-fault’ divorce, facilitating marriages to be dissolved more easily.
At a time of great pressure, the government has neglected to consider the significant effects of family breakdown. These include negative mental health consequences for couples; complications with child raising and living arrangements; emotional and behavioural problems for children; and greater financial strain for all parties, particularly women. It has been estimated that family breakdown costs the government in excess of £48billion a year (a figure generated five years ago, but expected to have risen since), which is inclusive of taxation, housing, health and social care, civil and criminal justice, and education costs. Family breakdown is not just painful to the parties and children involved, but it affects wider society too.
These factors are undoubtedly magnified during the restrictions imposed during Covid-19, which are already entrenching isolation, financial instability and concerns about the future.
It is widely recognised that marriage promotes the common good through building stable families. The proven benefits to children include vastly increased social and emotional development in early years – to a far greater degree than parental education or socio-economic status, and far greater chances of parents staying together. The benefits to women include higher relationship satisfaction and reduction in domestic violence. The benefits for men include statistically reduced potential for criminal activity and higher earnings.
The hardships many are facing during the pandemic therefore offer an opportune time for the government to protect and promote this model – which the guidance currently fails to do.
For the sake of our society and future generations, the government needs to start valuing both the institution and benefits of marriage with words and actions. Family unification should be prioritised and encouraged. It could begin by making it clear that people can still get married. This is crucial, now, more than ever.