The Marriage Act is the primary legislation that provides for the celebration of marriage in Nigeria. The only form of marriage recognized in Nigeria under the Act is monogamous marriage (marriage between one man and one woman).

Formalities for Statutory Marriages in Nigeria

By section 7 of the Marriage Act, statutory marriage is initiated by the giving of a notice of marriage by either party to the Registrar of Marriages where the marriage is intended to take place. The notice shall be in Form A and should be signed by the party giving the notice.

Upon paying the prescribed fees, the Registrar shall publish a copy of the notice by pasting it on the outer door of his office and the notice board of the registry after it has been entered in the "Marriage Notice Book". After publication, but before the issuance of the Registrar's certificate in Form C, which can be issued at any time after the expiration of 21 days period open for entering caveat but before the expiration of three (3) months from the notice of the marriage, any person who has just reasons why the parties should not get marriage can enter a Caveat against the issuance of the Registrar's Certificate by writing the word "Forbidden" opposite the entry of the notice in the Marriage Notice Book. The person must include his or her name, address, and the grounds for the objection in compliance with the provision of section 14 of the Marriage Act.

Persons who can enter caveat include any person whose consent to a marriage is required or who may know of any just cause why the marriage should not take place. Where such a caveat is validly entered, the Registrar shall not issue his certificate until the caveat is removed by the judge of a High Court of the state to whom such a matter shall be referred to for determination. The judge shall cause the parties and the caveator to appear before him to show cause why the Registrar's certificate should not be issued or otherwise and the matter shall be determined in a summary way with the right of appeal to the Court of Appeal.

Where the judge decides that the certificate ought to be issued, he shall remove the caveat by cancelling the word "forbidden" and writing below it: "cancelled by order of the high court" same will be signed in compliance to section 16 of the Marriage Act. The Registrar shall then issue his certificate and the marriage will go on as if the caveat was never entered. Where a caveat is entered, the period of three (3) months for issuance of Registrar's Certificate shall cease to run until the issue of the caveat is determined.

Factors to be considered by the Registrar before issuing the Registrar's Certificate

Under section 11(1) Marriage Act, the Registrar must be satisfied by an affidavit of the following before issuing the certificate:

  • That one of the parties has been resident within the district in which the marriage is intended to be celebrated at least fifteen days preceding the granting of the certificate
  • That each of the parties to the intended marriage (not being a widower or widow) is twenty-one years old, or that if he or she is under that age, the requisite consent has been obtained in writing and is annexed to such affidavit;
  • That there is no impediment of kindred or affinity or any other lawful hindrance to the marriage;
  • That neither of the parties to the intended statutory marriage is married by customary law to any person other than the person with whom such marriage is proposed to be contracted.

Under section 12 of the Marriage Act, the marriage must be celebrated within three (3) months of the date of the notice of marriage. If the marriage is not held within this period, the notice and other subsequent processes shall become void, and a fresh notice must be given before the parties can lawfully get married. However, by section 13 of the Marriage Act, where the Minister grants a license (in Form D) authorizing the celebration of a marriage between the parties named in the license by a registrar, or by a recognized minister of some religious denomination or body, the requirement of the notice of marriage and registrar's certificate can be dispensed with.

Venue for conducting Statutory Marriages in Nigeria

Under the Marriage Act, the venues where a marriage can be celebrated includes a licensed place of worship before any recognized Minister of the church denomination or body to which such place of worship belongs; the Registrar's office (marriage registry before the registrar); and other places licensed by the Minister.

Marriage by a minister of a religious denomination in a licensed place of worship

By virtue of Section 18 of the Marriage Act, marriages can be celebrated in a licensed place of worship before any recognized Minister of the church denomination or body to which such place of worship belongs provided that the marriage is celebrated with open doors between the hours of eight (8) o'clock in the forenoon and six (6) o'clock in the afternoon in the presence of two or more witnesses besides the officiating minister.

Marriage Registry before the Registrar of Marriage

By virtue of section 27 of the Marriage Act, marriages can be celebrated in the Marriage Registry before the Registrar after parties to the intended marriage have given notice and obtained the registrar's certificate. If the parties opt to contract the marriage in the Registrar's office before the Registrar of marriages, the marriage shall be celebrated by the Registrar with open doors, in the presence of two witnesses between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm.

Marriage in any place licensed by the Minister

A valid marriage may be celebrated in a place other than a licensed place of worship or the Registrar's office if a license issued by the Minister under section 13 Marriage Act so directs. Thus, a marriage may be celebrated in a town hall, garden, or some other places so indicated in the license issued by the Minister. But such marriage must be contracted by a recognized minister of some religious denomination or body, or by the Registrar of Marriage in compliance with section 23 and 29 of the Marriage Act. After the celebration of the marriage, the officiating minister shall issue a Marriage Certificate in Form E, duly signed by the Minister or Registrar, the parties to the marriage, and their witnesses.

Invalidity of Statutory Marriage in Nigeria

Section 33 of the Marriage Act provides as follows:

(1) No marriage in Nigeria shall be valid where either of the parties thereto at the time of the celebration of the marriage is married under customary law to another person other than the person to who the statutory marriage is had,

(2) A marriage shall be null and void if both parties knowingly and wilfully acquiesce in its celebration-

(a) in any place other than the office of a registrar of marriages or a licensed place issued under section 13 of this Act); or

(b) under a false name or names; or

(c) without a registrar's certificate of notice or license issued under section 13 of this Act duly issued; or

(d) by a person who is not a recognized minister of some religious denomination or body or a registrar of marriages.

(3) But no marriage shall, after celebration, be deemed invalid by reason that any provision of this Act other than the foregoing has not been complied with.

The purport of the above provisions of law is that even if a marriage does not fully comply with other requirements of the law for any reason, such a marriage shall become invalid unless the reason is among other reasons specifically stated above.

In sum, a statutory marriage (often called court marriage) in Nigeria is a union of a man and woman as defined by the Marriage Act. The Marriage Act is not the exclusive law governing statutory marriage and its validity in Nigeria. Section 3 and 5 of the Matrimonial Causes Act LFN 1990 also provides instances where a marriage could become void or voidable under Nigerian law. Such instances may include where the consent of one of the parties to the marriage was obtained by duress or fraud, or a party is mistaken as to the identity of the other party or the nature of the ceremony performed.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.