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Law: Marriage on the rocks

An exotic beach makes a perfect setting for a wedding - unless you break the local bylaws.
Bali beats a Balham register office every time. After all, who wants to get married in a council building on a well-worn Axminster carpet when you can have sun, sea and sand on a tropical island paradise? It's your wedding, so why not splash out on something special.

There's only one snag though - the resulting marriage may not be legally binding. Earlier this month in the High Court Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall's six-hour Hindu wedding ceremony on Bali nine years ago was finally ruled to be invalid under both Indonesian and English law. It really was the "wedding that never was" and for all the pomp and native ceremony, a mutual exchange of ring-pulls in the park would have been just as legal.

Family lawyers are reporting that other foreign weddings are proving just as worthless. Pauline Fowler, a leading divorce lawyer with London law firm Bates, Wells & Braithwaite, is advising on a case where a couple are considering bringing action against a tour company after their Central American wedding later proved to be invalid.

She believes there may be many other couples who will find out later rather than sooner that they too aren't actually married. "One possible cause of action is to sue the tour company who arranged the holiday," she says. If the holiday brochure promises a legal wedding then the travel company could be liable if the marriage turns out to be false.

Gillian Bishop, a partner with the Family Law Consortium, said that under contract law it might be possible to transfer the divorce claim against the tour company.

Often the validity of a beach wedding only comes to be tested when the couple embark on a divorce. If a claim for maintenance fails because the wedding, arranged through a tour company was not legal in the first place, the putative wife or husband might want to sue the company for damages. This could bring about a novel case where a travel company is sued for the maintenance payments that a woman would have won in a matrimonial court had the marriage been valid.

"Potentially," says Ms Bishop, "this could be a big problem for tour companies." But, she adds, the more common experience will be similar to that of Jerry Hall. "Because there is no such thing as a common-law wife or husband," says Ms Bishop, "there is no doubt that someone is going to have a greater claim if they are married."

For this reason, alone, Ms Bishop says, people should make the proper checks to ensure that they are actually being married and not simply taking part in an elaborate ceremony designed to look like a native wedding.

William Longrigg, a family law expert at London law firm Charles Russell, says: "It can be a very complex matter but generally if your marriage is legally binding in the country the ceremony took place in, then it is valid here."

Ms Bishop adds: "If you really want to be sure, it's a good idea to start with the embassy of the country in which the wedding is taking place. They should be able to at least tell you what steps you need to take for the wedding to have legal force."

In the case of Mick and Jerry, the judge, Mr Justice Connell, consulted two specialists on Indonesian law and found no evidence that the wedding had been registered. Although registration is not essential in Bali, the marriage was still invalid because neither party had converted to Hinduism or was Balinese.

The judge said that there clearly had been a ceremony that purported to be a marriage. He had seen photographs that clearly showed that Miss Hall and Mick Jagger had gone through "an elaborate ceremony witnessed by many people". In a statement to the court, Jerry Hall said: "The respondent and I exchanged wedding vows and rings. I played no part in the making of the arrangements for the ceremonies, which the respondent had organised.

"The ceremony bore, so far as I was aware, all the usual hallmarks of a wedding."

Photographs also showed the celebrity couple cutting a cake and exchanging rings. It was also clear that the ceremony was conducted by a Hindu priest. Nevertheless, to be valid, such a marriage must comply with the local law and this one failed to do so.

Mr Justice Connell added: "The evidence of the experts shows that the matter does not necessarily end there because if there is acknowledgement by the local community, then it may be that registration is not essential to a valid marriage in Indonesia."

Local community acknowledgement would have required both parties to have been Balinese Hindus. They were not and so the Jagger-Hall wedding was thus annulled rather then dissolved.

But perhaps more worrying for many other couples who have been married in this way was the fact that although Mick and Jerry referred to each other as husband and wife it made no difference at all to the legal standing of the marriage.

This so-called "marriage that never was" helped Mick Jagger's lawyers reduce Jerry Hall's claim from a rumoured pounds 30m of his pounds 150m fortune to something much less - an estimated pounds 10m.

One property lawyer in the City found the circumstances surrounding his beach marriage did stand up in an English court of law. The lawyer, who doesn't want to be named, married his long-time girlfriend on a beach in Mauritius in 1996. "But my marriage didn't last much longer than the two week holiday," he remembers.

His wife left him not long after they had got home and unpacked their suitcases. Being a lawyer the man had gone to the trouble to make sure the wedding holiday, advertised in the travel company's brochure, was valid.

"In hindsight," he says, "I wish I hadn't gone to the trouble." The legal validly of the wedding was the basis for the divorce. So too were the subsequent financial claims made by his ex-wife. Happily he's put the whole experience behind him and is about to have a second go. "This time I am going to do it properly and marry over here," he says.

Lawyers tend to be scornful of beach weddings. Ms Bishop, who married conventionally, has helped a number of couples extricate themselves from foreign weddings. She says: "In my experience, beach marriages don't tend to last very long anyway."