Are the participants really married? Is it legally possible to be married at first sight in Australia? Nicholes Family Lawyer Kate Wraith-Bell looks at how the law operates.
The popular TV program Married at First Sight has captured the attention of a record number of viewers, attracting 1.32 million viewers for its season debut.
In the first episode, 12 couples, matched together by relationship experts, meet at the altar for the first time whereupon they are “married”. Each couple spends their first night together in a hotel room, enjoys a honeymoon then spends the following month living together and developing their relationship with a view to either staying together or separating. The couples meet with each other during the season in a series of dinner parties and weekly re-commitment ceremonies.
The concept behind the series is to investigate whether starting a relationship with marriage would change the way in which couples interact and are committed to their union.
What is it about this program, which explores the advantages and disadvantages of what are traditionally titled “arranged marriages”, that has captured the interest of so many Australians?
Is it the simple pleasure of watching the romantic pairings of optimistic singles… or possibly the less admirable trait of the voyeuristic pleasure in observing the discomfort of others?
Whatever the reason, Married at First Sight is a ratings winner.
The question we often get asked at Nicholes Family Lawyers is: ‘Are the participants really married? Is it legally possible to be married at first sight in Australia?’
Before answering that question, it is interesting to look to the country of origin for the first series of MAFS in order to understand the legislative environment within which this concept was formed. MAFS first aired in Denmark in 2013.
Denmark is considered by some as the Las Vegas of Europe with the pre-marriage process in Denmark taking as little as two days. Quick and efficient, the wedding process is one of the fastest and simplest in Europe.
In Australia however, the process, whilst relatively simple, is not as quick. Our Australian couples are not Married at First Sight as the names suggests.
In order to marry in Australia, parties:
- Must not be married to someone else;
- Must not be marrying immediate family;
- Be at least 18 years unless a court has approved a marriage where one party is between 16 and 18 years old;
- Understand what marriage means and give their free consent;
- Use specific words during the ceremony.
AND interestingly for our MAFS participants
- Must give written notice of their intention to marry to their authorised celebrant, within the required time frame, which is one month prior to the wedding.
It is possible, providing the prescribed authority consents, to shorten this timeframe in the following circumstances:
- Medical: in the event that a party to the marriage or a person involved with the wedding is suffering from a serious medical condition;
- Employment: where a party to the marriage is to be deployed for work to another location or has other travel commitments.
- Where there are Legal Proceedings on Foot: a marriage may be solemnised despite the absence of the requisite notice where a party is involved in a legal proceeding
Or even due to:
- Wedding Arrangements: such as a venue being booked with a non-refundable deposit.
In the case of the MAFS social guinea pigs however, the ceremony the MAFS couples undertake is a commitment ceremony only. At the end of the prescribed period, they may choose to proceed with the ceremony and formalise their relationship…. or not.
So …whatever is in store for our 12 couples, we’ll have to wait and see. The good news for them is, should matters not work out, they’ll be saved the cost of the filing fee on an Application for Divorce (up to $900) should they decide to go their separate ways at the end of the television season.
In the future, what does MAFS have planned for season 7 we wonder? Possibly the inclusion of LGBTIQ+ couples in this social experiment.
Interestingly, the first gay couples participated in Season 3 in 2016 and received a negative response from sections of the gay community. At that time, as marriage equality had not been legally recognised, the marriage of the gay couple could not have been solemnised in Australia even if the couple had wished it to be. Many felt that the inclusion of a gay couple on the program was an insensitive casting on the part of the show’s organisers as it highlighted the inequality of unions between the gay and heterosexual communities with the gay couple being denied the legal privileges heterosexual couples enjoyed by virtue of their marriages.
This would not have been a problem for the Danish producers, where gay marriage has been recognised since 2012.
However since 9 December 2017 and the passing of the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 the option of entering into a legally binding marriage at the end of the MAFS season is now open to all participants, irrespective of sexuality.
So well done to the progressive Danes for leading the way in marriage equality and for giving us Married at First Sight. Bravo.