Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

This report was not approved formally by the Committee prior to the suspension of the Assembly on 14 October 2002, but is published by order of the Speaker.

Committee for
Finance and Personnel

Tuesday 17 September 2002

Marriage Bill:
Committee Stage
(NIA 18/01)

Members present:

Mr Molloy (Chairperson)
Mr Beggs (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Close
Mr Hussey
Mr R Hutchinson
Ms Lewsley
Mr Maskey
Mr Morrow
Mr Weir


Mr R Poole ) Religious
Mrs M Cameron ) Society
Mr M Andress ) of Friends

The Chairperson: I welcome you, Mr Poole, Mrs Cameron and Mr Andress, from the Religious Society of Friends. Perhaps you will make your opening remarks, after which we shall ask questions.

Mr Poole: Thank you for inviting the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Ireland to give evidence to you. I am Donald Poole, and I am the registering officer for marriages in the Lurgan monthly meeting. Our Society has two other registering officers in Northern Ireland. Accompanying me today are two Friends, Muriel Cameron, immediate past clerk of our Ireland yearly meeting, and Michael Andress, also from the Lisburn district, who is a solicitor practising in Belfast.

As our submission says, we have given written evidence on a number of occasions to the Law Reform Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland and the Office of the Registrar General for Northern Ireland.

Our religious body embraces the Christian doctrine based on a simple interpretation of New Testament teaching. Our meetings for worship are held without a leader or minister, relying on the Holy Spirit to guide, direct and teach in the silence of the meeting. Members may make contributions as they feel led by the Spirit, and the meeting becomes a living act of worship. Marriages take place in a similar setting, and many of our difficulties arise out of this different form of worship.

We are concerned about some aspects of the Bill. The first matter may seem trivial, but we do not have an officiant or a celebrant, as he is known in Scottish law. No one conducts the service. We were content with the previous name, which is "registering officer" in existing law. However, we would like to agree a description that is acceptable to all churches such as "authorised person", or, as in clause 39(2), "person solemnising a marriage". We welcome a simplification of the marriage law, but you may marginalize society in your desire to achieve that.

We want to continue the harmonious relationship between our Society and the state, but the Bill appears to lack evidence of that partnership’s being encouraged. The process applied to free a couple to marry concentrates only on the legal requirements. No heed is taken of the need to counsel couples on the meaning of marriage, the seriousness of the commitment, et cetera. The Committee may say that that is a matter for the religious body, so, in the case of religious marriages, the law should require formal communication to that body giving reasonable time before the date of the marriage. The marriage schedule plays no part in that preparation, as plans are firm 14 days before a marriage takes place. Heretofore, the notice and issuing of a certificate brought both processes together.

With regard to records, the Bill seems to have moved responsibility for administrative duties firmly into the territory of the state. Our Society currently has custody of duplicate marriage registers, and we make returns to the state at three-monthly intervals. With the transfer of that responsibility, we will have to devise a separate recording arrangement. Presumably, we will also lose custody of the dedicated copy of the register, which we keep in our archive. In the past, our Society was diligent about record keeping, hence our ability to provide information prior to 1922 when many records were lost. Could registers dedicated to each domination be kept by the state, and completed duplicates returned to our Society, which is a reverse of the present arrangement?

Generally, the Bill meets our Society’s needs. However, we will lose the privilege of issuing special licences. This is a valued provision, and we want an assurance that the new Bill will cover all aspects of the special licence. We will also lose the record keeping, as I said earlier.

Finally, we generally welcome the new law. In the past, the outmoded residence requirements concerned us, and we are pleased to see that they are gone. We welcome recognition that our marriages take place when couples make their vows and that it is not necessary for anyone to pronounce them married. That would be a difficulty for us. The inclusion of that requirement at an earlier stage presented us with difficulties, and we mentioned it in our submission to ensure that we were right to assume that this change would be made.

Greater freedom in the use of venues will benefit larger weddings that cannot use a small building. We appreciate that, as the Society is small, implementation of the new law may be easier. Some of the larger churches will find the appointment and training of clergy more difficult. It would be better if marriage law was simplified and a more uniform approach adopted, but to achieve that objective the law must not lose particular identities valued by smaller groups.

The Chairperson: As you know, the Committee is taking evidence today and will issue a formal response.

Mr Weir: Thank you for your submission. The first key issue for you is the use of the term "officiant". You said that you were happy with the previous term "registering officer" and suggested a couple of alternatives. What term does the Society use to refer to the person who officiates at weddings?

Mr Poole: We use the term "registering officer", which is also the term used by the Government. Registering officers are approved and appointed.

Mr Weir: From that point of view, I can appreciate why you are unhappy with the term "officiant".

Mr Poole: Even my computer objected to it this morning.

Mr Weir: A computer can object to many things. The Department has suggested that, if the term "officiant" is still used in legislation, Regulations must be produced to ensure that the definition of the term "officiant" includes the registering officer. Do you consider that to be a possible way forward?

Mr Poole: It would be a solution. It is irritating that the law uses a word that does not appear in the dictionary. If you looked far enough in some dictionaries, you could find it. It is an odd word. The state is giving a person authority to do a certain task, but in a sense the law is saying that the person is an officiant, a person who celebrates a service in a church, which does not cover our —

Mr Weir: I appreciate that your circumstances are such that the couple make the vows to each other. One possible solution to the problem has occurred to me. Your objection is to the term "officiant", so would it alleviate your concerns if a definition in the Bill said that "officiant" included "registering officer"?

Mr Poole: It would be a solution of a secondary nature, but still a solution.

Mr Beggs: It is difficult for you to keep a detailed copy of your marriage register. You said that you provided detailed information prior to 1922. What prevents you from recording the information in the current fashion? If the new process were introduced, what would stop you doing that?

Mr Poole: There is nothing to stop us doing that. The advantage of a system which meets the needs of the Government and the Religious Society of Friends is that it is simpler and the records are kept properly. Another system running in parallel may lapse and is just another administrative task. At present we hold two registers, and when one is full it is sent to the Government and we keep a copy. We send three monthly returns of what is in the register, and that works well.

Mr Hussey: I am not quite clear on that last point. Is Mr Beggs satisfied? I cannot understand why you still cannot keep a record with the proposed new system.

Mr Poole: If the Bill goes ahead the Society will have to have its own marriage register printed, and that would be an additional part of the procedure. The register would contain the same information that is in the marriage schedule and would be put in the register kept by the local registrar. That seems unnecessary. As the Bill stands, the administrative procedure seems to be being taken over by the registrar. That keeps the Society out of it altogether. That is good, but it does not help our record keeping. We would prefer a joint system where we kept part of it and you kept part of it.

Mr R Hutchinson: How many members does the Society have?

Mr Poole: It has about 1,600 members in Ireland.

Mr R Hutchinson: What about Northern Ireland?

Mr Poole: In Northern Ireland there are approximately 900 members.

Mr R Hutchinson: How many marriages does the Society solemnise? In the Brethren or Elim Pentecostal Church, of which I am a member, most marriages are from within. I am sure that few people from outside get married in a Quaker meeting.

Mr Poole: The weddings that I have been responsible for have involved a member of the Society marrying a non-member, and there is about one a year. I have one or two colleagues who probably have the same sort of experience.

Mr R Hutchinson: Do you think that there is a difficulty with keeping a record of one marriage a year?

Mr Poole: The Society likes the system that obtains.

Mr R Hutchinson: I appreciate many of your arguments, but I am finding it difficult to understand why there is such a problem with just one marriage a year.

Mr Poole: A bad system that is tolerated merely because it is small is not a good system. As the Society is small, we would like it right.

The Chairperson: Will the Clerk clarify some of the responses from the Department?

The Committee Clerk: Officials are present, but I will not call on them. The official line from the Department is that there is no bar on your keeping records in whatever form you wish to but that responsibility for registration is centralised. From what the Department is saying, historical records can be maintained for ever and a day, but they have no basis in law. Legal registration of marriage now falls to the Registrar General. Mr Chairperson, you may want to ask the officials, when they give evidence, whether the register will be published from time to time and if it will include details of denomination. Perhaps that might resolve some of the difficulties.

Mr Poole: Will there be one register, and will all denominations be included?

The Committee Clerk: You will have to ask the officials?

Mr Poole: If there were to be a register for each denomination, we would be one step nearer the possibility of receiving a copy from time to time.

The Chairperson: Will the Committee Clerk advise the Committee about the special licence?

The Committee Clerk: The Society has asked for clarification on the privileges associated with the special licence. The Bill, as the Society rightly points out, abolishes the need for a special licence, and the Department’s advice is that the Society’s concerns have been taken into account and that the same arrangements will apply to all religious bodies.

Mr Poole: We use the special licence, particularly for a person living abroad who wants to marry one of our members here. It does away with the residence requirements and makes it easier to go through the formalities without the person’s being in the country. The Bill takes care of that.

The Committee Clerk: The Department advises that there will be provision for special arrangements where a marriage is being performed at a very late stage, for whatever reason. The Department feels that the rationale for the special licence no longer exists. There will be a more centralised, simple procedure.

Mr Close: I note that you referred to the meaning of marriage and the necessary commitment to marriage. Would it be useful and helpful to have the definition of marriage incorporated in the Bill?

Mr Poole: Is there not something in the Bill already?

Mr Close: There is something about it in the explanatory and financial memorandum, but it is not in the Bill.

Mr Poole: Do you mean a form of words stating, for example, that marriage is an agreement for life?

Mr Close: Yes.

Mr Poole: That would be helpful.

Mr Morrow: We were talking about the word "officiant". Would the phrase "officiant or registering officer" help you in your dilemma?

Mr Poole: Yes.

Mr Weir: The word "officiant" could be replaced by "officiant or registering officer" each time it occurs in the Bill, and the same definition could be given for registering officer as officiant in clause 39. I cannot envisage any objections from the Department or others. That may offer a way of getting round the problem without making too many direct changes to the overall meaning of the Bill.

Mr Beggs: Do you think that "registering officer" is plain and simple English rather than "officiant", which may well confuse people when they first hear it?

Mr Poole: It says what it is. When I am acting as a registering officer, I am seeing that the law is being adhered to and that forms are filled in and signed at the right time. I am not conducting a service.

Mr Close: Picking up on Mr Weir’s point, surely Regulations could cover the definitions. That one word could be retained, but the complications would be appreciated —

Mr Weir: Most other Churches are comfortable with the word "officiant". Only the Society of Friends has objected to it. It should be retained in the Bill, because dropping it might cause concerns in other Churches. An acceptable alternative could be offered in the legislation which would give greater comfort than a promise of its appearing in later Regulations.

The Chairperson: Will the Committee Clerk tell us the Department’s view?

The Principal Committee Clerk: The Department’s view is that the term "officiant" has no religious connotations — the officiant is simply the person with the authority to conduct the marriage. Several religious bodies have difficulty with some terms, and the choice of the term "officiant" is a compromise in that the office is divested of religious connotations. The various nomenclatures that have been proposed could all be included in the Regulations, and that would avoid any descriptions that other groups might not like on the face of the Bill.

Mr Weir: The point is that, with the exception of the Society of Friends, all other religious bodies, even if it is not their first choice, are comfortable with the term "officiant". Adding the term "registering officer" will not detract from its meaning if it is retained. What would the additional objections be if the special circumstances were taken into account? In virtually all other Churches "officiant" describes what the person is, a celebrant of marriage, whereas in the Society of Friends the couple make the vows, and the role of the other person is simply to register that.

Mr Poole: What is the dictionary definition of officiate?

Mrs Cameron: The dictionary says that to officiate

"is to discharge priestly office, which perform divine service".

The difficulty arises because we do not have a priest or somebody else performing the divine office. Our registering officer is not the person who marries.

Mr Weir: He is a record keeper effectively.

Mrs Cameron: Yes.

Mr Andress: The term "registering officer" would suit us perfectly. The Marriage (Society of Friends) Act 1860 and the Marriage (Society of Friends) Act 1872 were passed specifically for the Society of Friends because we did not fit in with everybody else’s plan of how to get married. We are not asking for a separate Act now.

The Chairperson: OK. We will have to put that to the Department.

Mr Poole: The marriage schedule seems to be a record of everything that happens immediately prior to the wedding, the factual details that allow a wedding to proceed. We want to ensure that some time before the marriage date we get official notification of the marriage from the Department. It would be unfortunate if a couple were to go to the registrar, go through the various formalities and hear about it later. A religious marriage should be a partnership between a religious body and the state, and the Bill is weak on that.

Mr Close: Does the notice of marriage not overcome your problem?

Mr Poole: At what time is notice given?

Mr Close: Off the top of my head, it is one year.

Mr Poole: How many people go to the civic centre and look at the notice? If a couple decide to be married in the Society of Friends, they must give the date of the marriage, and the registrar should notify us formally at an early date.

Mr Weir: Can you not get around that by imposing your own regulations? I understand that our regulations are such that no religious body is told that it must perform a particular ceremony. Since at least one of the couple belongs to the Society of Friends — you would not usually marry two people who are not members — you could say that a certain period of notice must be given.

Mr Poole: It can happen, but it rarely does.

We want to be sure that the situation does not arise in which a couple is complying with the legal side and does not realise that there is another side to comply with. We are concerned about that. The legal side does not go into counselling or emphasize the seriousness of marriage, so we would like to be told by the registrar, or an appropriate body, that notice has been given.

The Chairperson: The only matter that comes to mind is that sometimes each religious body will want to make its own regulations to suit its conditions.

Mr Poole: We have our own regulations. We will have to amend them in the light of the Bill, but that is our business.

Currently when a marriage takes place by certificate, a couple gives notice to the registrar who issues a certificate after three weeks. The certificate is sent to us, as we are the authority for allowing the marriage to take place. That happens well in advance of the marriage, but the schedule seems to be taking the place of that. It will be within 14 days of the marriage, which does not leave us enough time, so the schedule must be taken out of the scenario. We want something to take the place of the certificate, which we would receive well in advance to show that notice has been given. It is a courtesy communication.

The Chairperson: Can the Committee Clerk give us the Department’s position?

The Principal Committee Clerk: There are two reasons. First, the 14-day period is to avoid issuing the schedule too early — circumstances can change. Secondly, the marriage schedule is distinct from the notice to marry and the agreement of the religious body to marry anyone. The Bill seems to say that the religious body sets it own rules and does not need to marry someone if he does not comply with them.

Mr Poole: We appreciate that, but we, or the Department, may not hear about it.

The Principal Committee Clerk: For the officiant to marry the couple he will have to have heard about it, or he would not have agreed to marry them, and they would not be on the marriage schedule in the first place — one presupposes the other.

Mr Poole: Sometimes a couple who want to get married see booking the taxi, the photographer and the video as more important. Some people only realise at the last minute that there is a legal procedure, and if that has been started and the couple have not come to us, it would help bring to light something that we must be doing, which is better than apologising at the last minute because the wedding cannot go on.

The Chairperson: We will raise that particular point.

Mr Hussey: Are you suggesting that during the middle of a meeting, a couple could hold up a certificate and declare their vows to each other without having let anyone know?

Mr Poole: If that were to happen, we would have to say that the marriage was null and void.

Mr Hussey: In other words, as the religious body you have control of the situation and can say "Sorry, tough".

Mr Poole: You highlight an extreme circumstance. A situation could arise in which I would get a knock on my door perhaps two weeks before. That would not be enough time for us.

Mr Hussey: You still have the right to say "Sorry, tough".

Mr Poole: I know, but we do not want to say sorry if it is merely because we have agreed a law that does not encourage the state and the religious body to communicate.

Mr Hussey: I would have thought that it should be the couple who were communicating.

Mr Poole: Yes, but are we not dealing with human beings?

The Chairperson: That is as far as we can go today. Thank you for giving evidence. It will form part of the consultation, and a response will be given.

10 September 2002 (iii) / Menu / 17 September 2002 (ii)