Contradictions and confusion still undermining confidence


A good news story of a wedding under lockdown has highlighted the confusion and contradictions over what is an isn’t essential:

A furore has erupted among the country’s wedding celebrants after a North Shore couple were allowed to tie the knot at their home despite the nationwide lockdown.

Jeff Montgomery, the Registrar-General for Births, Deaths and Marriages, is standing by his decision to let the couple go ahead with their special day, sending an email to all celebrants today stating it is up to them and their clients if they decide to get married during the 4-week lockdown period. . . 

But the Registrar-General emailed celebrants later saying it wasn’t up to him to decide if weddings should go ahead or not.

Weddings have occurred recently, for example when one of the couple is about to pass away, or because of religious requirements.

“It is up to the couple and the celebrant to consider how essential the wedding is and to work within the level 4 rules”.

“It is not the role of the Registrar-General to make decisions about whether or not a ceremony occurs. ‘Permission’ or ‘exemptions’ are not something that I have authority to issue and I do not make judgments on what services may or may not be essential.

“My role is to issue licences where the couple meet the requirements, to register celebrants who are expected to abide by the law, and to register relationships that have been legally solemnised,” he wrote.

That’s quite clear, so who can make decisions about whether or not a ceremony occurs?

In today’s briefing with media, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said weddings could go ahead as long as they abided by social distancing rules.

That seems clear, but what does the Covid-19 website say?

All indoor and outdoor events cannot proceed.

This does not include workplaces of people undertaking essential businesses.

If a wedding celebrant was running an essential business that might be okay but:

These requirements apply to family and social gatherings such as birthdays, funerals, tangi or weddings. These gatherings can not go ahead.

We are asking you only spend time with those who you are in self-isolation with, and keep your distance from all others at all times.

So there we have it – the Registrar-General quite rightly says it’s not up to him to say if a wedding is essential.

The DG of Health says weddings could take place as long as people obeyed social distancing rules.

But the COvid-19 website says weddings can’t take place.

The confusion and contradictions over this provide more grounds for having the guiding rule for what can take place under Level 4 lockdown what’s safe rather than what’s essential.

Providing everyone involved took the proper precautions to maintain social distance and either wash their hands or use sanitiser before and after touching the pen and paper work, it ought to be safe to have a wedding with just the couple, two witnesses who were already in their bubble and a celebrant.

But under the Level 4 rules no weddings are supposed to be taking place.

Changing to safety as the guide rather than essential would not only allow very small wedding ceremonies to take place, it would allow a lot more small businesses to open again.

That could save jobs, and businesses, take pressure over businesses like supermarkets that are open, and get rid of the confusion and contradictions over what is and isn’t essential.

What does “in the presence of” mean?


Towards the end of each year registered marriage celebrants get a letter from the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages, inviting them to apply to continue in the role.

Appointments are made the following March and in recent years the letters informing us we’ve been reappointed have included warnings about sharing duties with non-registered celebrants.

Anyone can officiate at a funeral, but if a couple wish to be legally married (or civilly unioned) they need a registered celebrant to officiate. The letter from the Registrar says that means more than just being there and signing the paper work while someone else does takes the service.

Now a court case in Christchurch has raised a question over exactly what the Marriage Act requires:

The wording of the Marriage Act will be put to the test in an unusual trial that started today in Christchurch District Court, where a marriage celebrant and his trainee deny performing an unlawful wedding.

Defence counsel James Rapley told the court legal discussion would be needed later about the Act’s requirement for a marriage to be “solemnised in the presence” of a marriage celebrant.

Being a celebrant used to be regarded as a community service but many now treat it as a career and that’s mostly why the problem over non-registered celebrants has arisen.

I do only a handful of services a year and don’t charge but have no problem with others who do. Agreeing to officiate usually requires making a commitment to a date months in advance and good celebrants put a lot of time and effort into their preparation. Although a civil service doesn’t take long, a celebrant has to arrive well before it starts and can easily tie up a couple of hours or more on the day. There’s nothing wrong with asking to be paid for all that.

However, not everyone who wants to be a celebrant is able to. The number of celebrants is restricted and not everyone who applies to be registered is accepted. Some people have set up business anyway, done the preparation, taken the service and had a registered celebrant on hand to do the paper work.

The registrar has been telling us that’s not acceptable. I’ve never been asked to share officiating duties with anyone else but it was discussed at a celebrants’ conference and wasn’t unusual in cities.

 If the case before the court confirms that “in the presence of” means more than just being there and signing the register a whole lot of people who thought they were married may find they’re not.

Whatever the outcome of the case it’s also an opportunity to discuss whether there should be a change so that anyone who meets the requirements to be a celebrant ought to be able to be one.

There are good reasons for needing to safeguard the quality of celebrants but I’m not convinced there’s any need to restrict the quantity.

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