If you’re an avid follower of showbiz happenings, you may have seen recent reports that Manchester City footballer Riyad Mahrez has married Taylor Ward, daughter of Real Housewives of Cheshire star Dawn Ward and retired footballer Ashley Ward. It is reported that the couple, who started dating in early 2020, got engaged in Mykonos last year and participated in a ‘secret ceremony’ with only their close friends and family in attendance.
The glamorous couple solemnised their marriage with a Nikah ceremony. The Nikah is an Islamic marriage ceremony, where the couple signs the marriage contract in the presence of an Imam and at least two witnesses. This allows the couple to be legally wed under Islamic law and is a Prophetic tradition. The Nikah legitimises their relationship in front of God and it’s when the couple says, “I accept” or “Qubool”.
Whilst the Nikah ceremony is the only permissible way that a man and woman can be married under Islamic law, for a marriage to be valid in English law, a civil registry marriage must also be performed. This gives married couples rights which non-married couples generally do not have. Further, upon divorce, married couples are able to make applications to the Court for financial provision for themselves and their children arising out their marriage.
Like Taylor Ward and Riyad Mahrez, many Muslim couples living in England have sought to legitimise their marriage with intimate Nikah ceremonies during the Covid-19 pandemic, often postponing their larger wedding receptions until after lockdown. This has resulted in some Muslim couples neglecting to complement their religious ceremonies with the civil registry, which is often tied into the larger reception, thereby leaving themselves in a vulnerable position legally in the event of a separation.
In the recent case of Akhter v Khan  EWCA Civ 122, where the parties had undergone a Nikah ceremony only, the Court of Appeal considered whether the marriage should be considered a void marriage or a non-marriage.
A void marriage is one which bears some of the hallmarks of a valid marriage, but one of the essential elements of a valid marriage is missing (for example, a fault in the ceremony or one of the parties did not have capacity to marry). Following a void marriage, the Court can grant a decree of nullity and make financial provision for the parties. This can be differentiated from a non-marriage, where the parties cannot apply for financial provision arising from their ceremony.
The Court of Appeal held that the parties’ Nikah ceremony, which took place in England in front of 150 guests, did not create a valid marriage and nor could a decree of nullity be granted. The ceremony had not taken place in a registered building, there was no notice given, no certificate and no registrar or authorised person present. Mr Khan and Ms Akhter knew that the Nikah had no legal effect from the outset and it was held that their religious Nikah ceremony resulted in a non-marriage.
This meant that, for the purpose of financial provision, Mr Khan and Ms Akhter would be treated as cohabitees rather than spouses. They would need to rely on the more complex principles of property law and trust law, together with Schedule 1 Children Act 1989, to deal with financial provision for themselves and their children.
Whilst religious wedding ceremonies play a very significant role in every faith and culture, this case has highlighted the need for couples to consider whether to legalise their marriage in England by undergoing a civil registry.
It is, of course, the prerogative of Muslim couples to decide whether to register their Islamic marriage. However, they should do so in the knowledge that in the event of their divorce, they may be treated as cohabitees and not entitled to apply for the same financial provision as a spouse. For Taylor Ward and Riyad Mahrez, it’s understood that the couple plan on legalising their marriage with a civil registry later this year.