Pandemic saw marriage rates in England and Wales fall to lowest on record

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Marriages in England and Wales fell in 2020 to the lowest ever recorded, according to statistics which lay bare the full impact of the pandemic on weddings.

There were 85,770 marriages in the two nations that year – the lowest number since the first full year of marriage records in 1838.

The 2020 figure was down 61.0% from 219,850 in 2019, which is the largest annual decrease ever recorded.

The figures, published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on Thursday, showed marriage rates were at their lowest level since 1862.

There were 7.4 marriages per 1,000 men not in a legal partnership, compared with 19.1 in 2019, and 7.0 marriages per 1,000 women not in a legal partnership, compared with 17.8 in 2019.

The figures also showed that marriage rates were lower than divorce rates for the first time since records began.

There were 8.5 divorces per 1,000 married men and 8.6 per 1,000 married women, the ONS said.

Religious ceremonies also fell to their lowest percentage on record, accounting for 15.0% of opposite-sex marriages in 2020, down from 18.7% in 2019.

In 2020, there were 82,959 opposite-sex marriages, a decrease of 61.1% from the 213,122 figure in 2019, and 2,811 same-sex marriages, down 58.2% from 6,728 in 2019.

The statistics body acknowledged the time lag in data, saying it is “currently only possible to publish final annual marriage statistics around 26 months after the end of the reference year because of delays in the submission of religious marriage entries by the clergy and authorised persons”.

Amanda Sharfman, from the ONS, said: “Restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic have had a marked impact on the number, timing and characteristics of marriages taking place in 2020 compared with previous years.

“Marriage rates in 2020 have more than halved compared with 2019 and have fallen to their lowest on record. While August is usually the most popular month to marry, in 2020 there was a shift to September and October respectively for opposite-sex and same-sex couples.

“While divorce proceedings were also impacted by the pandemic, for the first time, marriage rates were lower than divorce rates. Future analysis will show whether there is a rise in marriage rates in 2021 as restrictions were lifted.”

While rates of opposite-sex marriage at all age groups decreased between 2019 and 2020, the biggest fall was for men and women aged between 25 and 29.

For men, rates fell by 66.1% from 28.3 per 1,000 unmarried men in 2019 to 9.6 per 1,000 in 2020, while for women they dropped by 65.7% from 41.4 per 1,000 unmarried women in 2019 to 14.2 per 1,000 in 2020.

The ONS said this could reflect younger couples choosing to wait until coronavirus restrictions had lifted before getting married.

For same-sex marriages, 20 to 24-year-olds had the largest percentage decrease in rates in 2020 for women, while for men it was 40 to 44-year-olds.

Most areas saw overall marriage numbers fall by more than half in 2020, but the largest decreases were in Bedford and Walsall, both on 80.8%.

London saw the greatest proportion (17.7%) of marriages, a change from the previous three years when the greatest proportion was in the South East.

Claire Reid, a partner with Hall Brown Family Law, said the impact of lockdown was clear but the ages of those marrying suggested that while younger people might have postponed, some older people went ahead.

“Those individuals who might have wanted a big white wedding were forced either to revise their plans or to delay. Many younger couples may well have simply decided to wait.

“However, some older couples – particularly those who might have been married before – were clearly determined to press on.

“They may have been more concerned with tying the knot than having a lavish event.”

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