It is more apparent than ever before that many of those living in the UK are unclear about their marital status where they have only had a religious ceremony.
Many believe that their marriages are recognised under English Law and in some cases this is true but not in all cases. It is so vital that we raise awareness around the issue of religious marriages being recognised in the UK. It has severe legal implications that many only realise when their relationship breaks down by which time it is too late.
If you marry abroad then so long as you have complied with the legal requirements of that country, then your marriage is automatically recognised in the UK without you having to take any further steps. For example, a nikah ceremony conducted in Pakistan is automatically recognised in the UK as a valid marriage.
Marriages in the UK
To the contrary, if you only have a religious ceremony (e.g. nikah) in the UK which does not take place in a registered religious building and you don’t have a separate civil ceremony, then your marriage is not recognised under English Law. There are many cases where one party wishes to deliberately avoid having a civil ceremony as they don’t want the other party to make a claim against their assets in the event of their relationship breaking down. It is your responsibility to ensure that your marriage is registered and if necessary you have a civil ceremony in the UK. Do not rely upon others to ensure this is done. Failure to have a civil ceremony, may leave you being treated as cohabitants (partners) under English Law.
Implications of not having a legally recognised marriage
When it comes to resolving finances upon separation as well as inheritance, having the status of cohabitants puts you at severe disadvantage compared to a married status. Upon separation, as a cohabitant you will have no right to an English divorce or a claim over your spouse’s assets unless you show that you have made financial contributions towards the assets that you are claiming. Whereas if your marriage is recognised in the UK then you can seek a financial order from the Courts which can include a property adjustment order, pension order, lump sum and maintenance for the benefit of yourself and your children.
As a cohabitant, unless your partner has made a Will leaving you a part of their estate, you will be entitled to nothing under the intestacy rules when they die and you may have to make a separate claim as a dependant. More reason for you to have a legally recognised marriage and a Will in place. A married party under the intestacy rules will be entitled to a portion of their late spouse’s estate. There are calls to have religious marriage ceremonies conducted in the UK to be recognised and to make it compulsory for all religious marriages in the UK to be registered but this is not the law at the current time.
Recent case law
In the very exceptional recent case of Akhter v Khan  EWFC 54, an English Court has recognised an Islamic marriage (Nikah) conducted in the UK as falling within English law. Due to a number of reasons, the Judge came to the conclusion that the marriage was void as the marriage failed to comply with the law for creating a legal marriage in the UK (having a civil ceremony). If the marriage was held to be a non-marriage, then the wife would have been entitled to no decree or claim against assets. A decree of nullity, after a void marriage means that the wife is entitled to the same financial remedies available to married couple upon divorce and she will not need to prove financial contributions towards the assets in the husband’s sole name.
Although the decision has been welcomed by many and there are many others in the UK in almost identical situations, some of whom may now be able to bring a claim, the decision does not mean that religious ceremonies conducted in the UK are recognised and is fact specific Knowledge is power so please share this to empower individuals to make an informed decision about their marriages. Raising awareness will help to protect an individual’s rights so that they can make an informed decision about the type of ceremony they have before start their new life together protecting their current and future interests.
If you require any further information or advice in this area, then please feel free to contact me using the details below.