At the time of writing (August 2022), the answer is 16 – but only in exceptional circumstances, if you have the permission of your parents. Beyond the age of 18, you do not need parental permission for a legally valid marriage.
These minimums are defined by the Marriage Act 1949, at time when the cultural mores surrounding marriage were different. Nowadays teenage marriage is a rare occurrence in western countries, with the occasional exception of some cultural and religious groups. Members of such communities remain vulnerable to social pressure to enter arranged marriages at an early age. Some who succumb to this pressure experience abuse and have their access to education limited. New legislation aims to protect young people in these situations
What is the law on forced marriage in England and Wales?
A forced marriage is one which one or both participants are pressured into, often because the marriage was pre-arranged by relatives and a later refusal by the bride or groom is seen as something that would bring dishonour on the family.
However, under current legislation, forced marriage is only technically a crime if it can be shown that:
- The bride or groom lacked the mental capacity to consent to the marriage.
- Threats or coercion were used.
But this will change in February 2023.
How is the law on consent to marriage changing?
On 27 February 2023, the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act will come into force. This will raise the minimum age at which a person can marry to 18 in all circumstances, and this will apply both to legally valid marriages and to cultural and religious marriages that are not always properly registered.
Trying to coerce a teenager under the age of 18 into marriage will become a criminal offence on that date, and anyone found guilty of doing so could face a seven-year jail sentence and/ or substantial fines – even if the marriage took place abroad. However, the change will not be retrospective: any existing marriages entered by individuals who were 16 or 17 at the time will remain valid as long as these were properly registered.
The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act was originally introduced by Conservative MP Sajid Javid before his promotion to health secretary, specifically in order to crack down on coercive and abusive marriages. It was then adopted by fellow MP Pauline Latham, and received Royal Assent at the end of April 2022.
The Act only applies to England and Wales. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, the minimum age for marriage will remain 16 for the time being.