An exchange of vows, even in a religious context, is not generally enough by itself to constitute a valid marriage. The High Court made that point in concluding that a deathbed ceremony, whilst giving comfort to those involved, was of no legal effect.
The case concerned a couple in a long-term relationship who set a wedding date after the man was diagnosed with lung cancer. They sent out invitations, bought rings and booked a reception venue. However, a few weeks before the planned event, his condition suddenly worsened. A hospital chaplain conducted a marriage ceremony of sorts in front of family members prior to his death later that day.
With the support of the Attorney General for Northern Ireland, his partner sought a judicial declaration that the marriage was valid. That was a matter of the greatest importance to her although the outcome of her application would have no financial impact in terms of inheritance, state benefits or otherwise.
She argued, amongst other things, that to refuse such a declaration would amount to a disproportionate interference with her right to marry, enshrined in Article 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights. She contended that the ceremony met the requirements of canon law and that the public interest weighed heavily in favour of the validity of the marriage being upheld.
In refusing her application, however, the Court noted that, prior to the ceremony, only the first steps had been taken to achieve compliance with the legal requirements that must be met before a marriage can be validly contracted. Amongst other things, no public notice of the marriage had been published and no marriage schedule had been issued by the General Register Office for Northern Ireland (GRONI).
There was an indisputable public interest in ensuring compliance with the legal rules on the formation of a marriage, which provide legal certainty for the state and married couples alike. If the woman’s application succeeded, the responsibilities of the GRONI would be rendered all but impossible to fulfil. Although it was to be hoped that the ceremony provided comfort and a sense of meaning to the couple, it was not a marriage that remotely satisfied the legal requirements.