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Under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, it is illegal for anyone in England and Wales to enter into a polygamous marriage; that is a marriage that would mean they had more than one wife (polygyny) or husband (polyandry). This applies both to marriages that take place in England and Wales, and to those marrying abroad who are domiciled in England and Wales.
The illegality of multiple marriages was enshrined in law in England in 1604, enabling victims of double marriage, the Church or state, and other interested parties, to bring legal claims that could see perpetrators facing punishments such as a fine, imprisonment, transportation, or even execution. Subsequent legislation allowed exceptions such as when the polygamist held the genuine belief that their previous marriage had been dissolved, or if they had been deserted for more than seven years with the uncertainty of whether their spouse was still alive.
Presently, the legal consequences of being found guilty of being in multiple marriages is up to seven years' imprisonment and/or a fine. Nevertheless, the crime is rare in the UK, with only 363 cases being recorded by police between April 2015 and March 2020.
This does not, however, mean that anyone currently domiciled in England and Wales cannot be married to more than one person. If they were, at the time of the marriage, domiciled in a country that permits multiple marriages, and the marriage took place in a country where polygamy is legally recognised, then UK law recognises the validity of being married to more than one person. As such, polygamous households can and do exist in the UK.
This applies when a couple marries with a Nikah ceremony (an Islamic ceremony in which the marriage is legitimised in the eyes of God) in a country that requires no further registration for that marriage to be legal, such as in Pakistan. The UK does not recognise a Nikah ceremony taking place in England and Wales as a valid marriage, so parties should be aware that unless and until a civil registration takes place that legalises the marriage, the law will not consider it valid.
UK courts will generally treat marriages that have taken place outside of the UK in accordance with the legal requirements of the jurisdiction in which it was held as legally valid, thereby enabling polygamous parties currently domiciled in England and Wales to separate or divorce in accordance with the provisions of current legislation.
If, however, a polygamous marriage is not legally valid under UK law, then spouses wishing to formally end a marriage will not be able to obtain a divorce under UK law. As a result, those leaving a non-valid polygamous marriage will be treated in the eyes of the law as though they had been cohabiting with their spouse, which may leave them vulnerable in terms of the apportionment of family assets – such as income, property, pensions, investments and savings – and eliminate any potential claim for spousal maintenance. There are further implications for those in polygamous marriages in terms of social security benefits, pension entitlements and inheritance.
For further information and advice on this issue, and other family law issues, please contact us for a free initial consultation on 01992 306 616 or 0207 956 2740 or email us.Back to Law Articles