The Gretna Green Exemption: Love’s Young Nightmare?

26th April 2022 Family Law

When one thinks about Gretna Green the first thing that comes to mind is, for most, young love. 

Since the 1700s, young English and Welsh couples have fled to the Scottish border village to elope. This is as a result of a legal loophole which allows English and Welsh 16 and 17 year olds to flee to either Northern Ireland or Scotland to marry. From Leanne and Nick on Coronation Street to Jonah and Cesca on Waterloo Road, Gretna Green elopements have become a cultural touchstone, a romanticised trope.

However, the reality can often be far more sinister as the Gretna Green exemption is, at its heart, a loophole allowing child marriage. Research into child marriage reveals an association with leaving education early, limited career opportunities and an increased risk of domestic abuse. 

There are also fears that the children, often female, are being coerced into marriage. Fears regarding child marriage are so grave that the United Nations consider it to be a harmful practice, like female genital mutilation. 

As a result, Members of Parliament have proposed The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill, a bill that would change the law so that any marriages or civil partnerships which take place overseas, or in Scotland or Northern Ireland involving under-18s, where one of the parties is domiciled in England and Wales, will not be recognised in England and Wales. 

The hope is that children will therefore have more time to mature and consider the serious legal and financial consequences of marriage. 

Perhaps more interesting is that the Bill will also make it illegal for a person to arrange the marriage of a person under the age of 18 in England and Wales. This means that parents and professionals who seek to take children abroad to marry will be impeded in doing so and those who are aware of any impending nuptials will have greater clarity as to their legal obligations

The third reading of the bill in the House of Lords is today (26/04/22) and it will be very interesting to follow the updates as they occur. 

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Joe Ferguson is a Solicitor located in Manchesterin our Family department

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