A 66-year-old law that governs how and where couples in England and Wales can marry is restrictive, confusing and inconsistent, the Law Commission said today. 

The Marriage Act 1949 has its roots in legislation passed in 1836 and ‘reflects the needs of society at that time’, the commission says in a scoping paper. As a result it does not cater adequately for the faiths and non-religious beliefs that make up 21st-century society. 'Consequently many people feel that the law is unfair.'

In its scoping paper, Getting Married, the commission also describes existing marriage law as unnecessarily restrictive. The solution, it says, lies in full-scale reform of this area of law. It notes that Scotland updated its law in 2014 and the Republic of Ireland in 2012. 

The commission is not making specific proposals for how the law should change, instead setting out questions that would need to be examined to achieve 'a modern law of marriage'. Among the restrictions it highlights are that marriages must happen in a registery office or on approved premises and cannot contain religious content such as readings from holy books.

'With certain exceptions, religious ceremonies must take place within a registered place of religious worship. Many people would like the opportunity to marry somewhere more personal or meaningful to them, including outdoors. For some religions, the place of worship is not necessarily the place where people of that faith would choose to marry. '

There is also a lack of clarity in the existing law, which can make it difficult to know whether a valid marriage has taken place or not. This uncertainty has led to some people unexpectedly finding that their marriage is not legally recognised, often at a point of crisis such as separation or bereavement.

Professor Nicholas Hopkins, law commissioner for property, family and trust law, said: 'Our modern society deserves a clearer set of rules that gives all couples greater choice and certainty, while providing protection from the abuses involved in sham and forced marriage.'

The commission said the next step in any reform is for the government to respond to its recommendations.