Celebrant issue prompts marriage legality warning

13:31, Aug 13 2009
KNOT TIED: June Russell, former president of the National Guild of New Zealand Celebrants, says only registered celebrants can solemnise a marriage.
KNOT TIED: June Russell, former president of the National Guild of New Zealand Celebrants, says only registered celebrants can solemnise a marriage.

You may think you are happily married, but you might just be happy.

The Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) has warned that non-registered celebrants are taking the lead role at some weddings, raising concerns that the legality of several New Zealand marriages or civil unions is uncertain.

In a letter written last month, DIA registrar-general Brian Clarke reminded registered celebrants that they must "officiate the ceremony" and "not be a bystander".

"Instances continue to be brought to my attention of persons other than marriage or civil union celebrants taking the lead role in the solemnisation of marriages and civil unions," he wrote. Several Christchurch celebrants said they knew of cases where registered celebrants were allowing non-registered people to officiate at weddings before stepping in to sign legal papers.

Christchurch marriage celebrant and former president of the National Guild of New Zealand Celebrants June Russell said only registered celebrants could solemnise a wedding and that a marriage may not be legal unless officiated by a registered celebrant.

"Some [unregistered] celebrants have just been doing the whole ceremony and getting a [registered] marriage celebrant to just sign the legal papers," Russell said. "They [the couple getting married] are leaving themselves open to that marriage not being legal."


A recent celebrants' guild newsletter also warned celebrants of their legal responsibilities.

"Be aware if you are one of the registered celebrants signing off weddings what you are doing is illegal under the Marriage Act 1955, and Births, Deaths and Marriages [BDM] are aware of and looking into this practice," it reads.

In the past, the DIA took a court case against Clive Newson, a non-registered celebrant who officiated several wedding ceremonies.

The legality of the marriages needed to be verified by the court.

"An approved celebrant signed the registration papers at the ceremonies, but Newson signed other papers for the couples, and BDM noticed the inconsistencies. As a result, the validity of the marriages needed to be confirmed by a court. DIA was able to prosecute Newson for the offence of conducting a ceremony without being an approved celebrant," Clarke said.

BDM "occasionally" heard about such instances, and also ones where approved celebrants took little part in the ceremony, "but we seldom have enough information to follow them up", Clarke said.

Russell said it may be students from celebrant training courses who were taking lead roles in wedding ceremonies.

"I've no problem standing in and watching but they're officiating the wedding and getting a registered marriage celebrant to sign the papers to make the marriage legal."

Prosecution of registered celebrants who sign the papers may be possible, Clarke said.

Christchurch celebrant Julie Lassen said: "It has been happening and it's really very bad."

Clarke said BDM only registered marriages and did not decide on their validity.

"A court, normally the Family Court, would have to decide the validity of a marriage," he said.

Under section 59 of the Marriage Act 1955, a person who falsely pretends to be a marriage celebrant and solemnises any marriage could spend up to five years in jail.

* Do you know of any instances where a non-celebrant has officiated at a wedding? Contact Keith Lynch, reporters@press.co.nz.

The Press