The bride thought he said 'I do'. But the groom didn't

South African wedding ceremony was not legal, rules High Court judge
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The Independent Online

To all intents and purposes it was a "splendid and romantic" wedding ceremony. It was held on a rooftop overlooking a sunlit sea. There was a priest, a wedding trousseau and a bridesmaid – the couple's four-year-old daughter – then guests dressed in their finery enjoyed a formal dinner followed by dancing.

Yet, despite Gillian Hudson and Robert Leigh exchanging rings with the words: "I give you this ring as a sign of our marriage", the couple were not legally married, a High Court judge decided yesterday.

Mr Justice Bodey was ruling in the unusual case of a couple who went through what most people would consider to be a wedding ceremony but was – in the eyes of the law – nothing of the kind.

Not only that, but the reason the story came before the courts was because not long after the romantic ceremony in South Africa, Ms Hudson, 43, a regular churchgoer and Mr Leigh, 49, described as an atheist Jew, split.

And when Ms Hudson filed for divorce, Mr Leigh claimed it was a non-marriage. Ms Hudson had sought a settlement from her former partner, a wealthy estate agent.

Yesterday the judge said: "It was a very happy occasion with the couple appearing to be very much in love. The bride was in full wedding trousseau and all the guests were dressed up to the nines. Their four-year-old daughter made a delightful bridesmaid and there was a splendid sit-down dinner followed by dancing."

But he ruled that no marriage had taken place because it had not been asked at the ceremony whether there was any just impediment. There was no reference to "lawful wife" or "lawful husband", and no declaration that they were lawfully married was made.

The priest, the "bride" and the "bridegroom" were all in agreement in advance that this would not be a legal marriage, and the ceremony had been carefully worded so that it did not comply with marital laws, Mr Justice Bodey said. He ruled that therefore, Ms Hudson would not be able to claim financial relief from Mr Leigh other than maintenance for their daughter.

The couple first met in England in 1992 and continued their relationship after Ms Hudson went to live in South Africa. Mr Leigh proposed marriage in August 2003 and Ms Hudson said she wanted a religious ceremony and Mr Leigh said he wanted a civil one.

They reached the compromise of a religious-style ceremony in Cape Town in January 2004, which would be followed soon after by a formal civil version in England. But the couple separated before the official marriage could take place.

Earlier in the case Ms Hudson said: "I felt a complete transition in my whole being after I took the vows. I felt very married. I felt like a different woman and I felt like a wife. The whole essence of my being felt different. I was very happy to be with Robert." But Mr Leigh said yesterday after the ruling: "I think the judge's findings reached the honest truth of what happened."

The couple now live at separate addresses in Richmond-upon-Thames, Surrey.