The Prince and Mrs Parker Bowles
Two years ago Panorama outlined the difficulties Prince Charles would face if he tried to marry Mrs Camilla Parker Bowles. Last week Clarence House announced the marriage would go ahead and insists everything is now in order.
Serious obstacles in the way of marriage have been overcome but Panorama reveals that they may have been replaced by a new one, with some legal experts now questioning how a civil marriage in England can be within the laws that govern the royal family.
According to one opinion, voiced by Stephen Cretney QC, Emeritus Fellow in Legal History at Oxford University, the situation could become
"... that although there has been a ceremony and that has led to public rejoicing the Prince of Wales is not married and the... Mrs Parker Bowles is not his wife. And that would be a very, very serious matter."
One Act in particular, in the view of lawyers Panorama spoke to, could pose serious legal problems for the civil marriage planned for Charles and Camilla. In 1836 Parliament passed the Marriage Act which allowed people, for the first time, to have civil rather than church marriages. However, the Royal family was specifically exempted from the law and apparently barred from civil marriages.
In 1949 that Act was updated by a new Marriage Act. This is still the main Act regulating marriage in this country. It retained many features of the 1836 Act - including a Royal exemption. It states that
"Nothing in this Act shall affect any law or custom relating to the marriage of members of the Royal family."
Prince Charles' spokesman at Clarence House told Panorama that advice had been taken from four legal experts. Their judgement was that the 1949 Act is not a continuation of the old legislation. It's a completely new act, and therefore does not carry over the bar on royals having civil marriages. But according to Stephen Cretney QC
"The 1949 Act is a Consolidation Act. A Consolidation Act does not change the law except in the most minor ways and all it does is to bring together the visions previously scattered amongst the large number of other acts."
Valentine Le Grice QC, a specialist in family law, says:
"It would not be possible for them to get married by the way in which most people would understand a registry marriage ... it is not open to the two of them to follow the normal procedures of a registry marriage."
If the 1949 Marriage Act does indeed pose a problem and would prevent a civil wedding at Windsor, then there are a number of potential solutions:
Prince Charles could use the Human Rights Act to challenge the 1949 Act. But that could involve court cases and a change in the law.
The couple could get married in Scotland, where the law is different.
The couple could opt for a common law marriage something which the 18th century Clandestine Marriages Act abolished for everyone except royals.
Or, perhaps the most straightforward solution, Parliament could act swiftly to pass legislation to correct the situation.