Lloyd's Maritime and Commercial Law Quarterly

Marriages at sea: the captain’s powers, past, present and future

Kathleen S.Goddard *

This article examines the legal position in relation to marriages on board British merchant vessels, both on the high seas and within English and foreign territorial waters. The historical position is analysed, followed by a consideration of the present law. The article concludes with a discussion of whether the proposed reforms relating to marriage ceremonies and registration of marriages, set out in the White Paper “Civil Registration: Vital Change Birth Marriage and Death
Registration in the 21st Century”, should extend to British ships.


On 22 January 2002 the Government published a White Paper entitled Civil Registration: Vital Change Birth Marriage and Death Registration in the 21st Century. The White Paper deals with projected changes to the registration system in relation to these matters, and also with modernization of aspects of the law relating to marriage. Lloyd’s List subsequently reported1 that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency hopes that reform of the marriage laws will enable weddings to occur on board British ships. Apparently, weddings are a lucrative part of the cruise ship industry. Consequently, companies have been reluctant to register cruise ships on the British register because shipowners take the view that marriage ceremonies cannot be conducted on board British ships, although weddings can take place in vessels registered under foreign flags.2 The position currently taken by shipping companies, namely that valid marriages cannot normally occur on board British ships, runs counter to the popular belief that the captain of a ship had the power to conduct a legally binding marriage ceremony. Indeed, there are scenes in films3 and novels where weddings are conducted on board ship, with the captain officiating at the ceremony.

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