Sunday 30 September 2018 was a memorable wedding. It was a perfect afternoon on the foreshore of Sydney Harbour at Vaucluse. The ceremony was beautiful – an honest reflection and celebration of the couple, their family and friends. The newlyweds sparkled as bright as the sun glistened on the harbour. Everyone was high on happiness.
I packed my paperwork into my bag, collapsed the tripod, hoisted the PA bag over my shoulder and farewelled the couple. As I walked to my car, a wave of sadness descended. This was my final wedding after six wonderful years working as a civil marriage celebrant.
Three days later, I was no longer deemed ‘a fit and proper person’ suitable to solemnise marriages. I was deregistered as a Commonwealth-marriage celebrant. My crime? I forgot to pay the annual marriage celebrant registration charge by the final payment date required.
Now, before you shout “surely, a celebrant can be organised enough to pay the annual celebrant registration charge invoice within 60 days?” I certainly had been since the introduction of the charge in 2014.
But inconceivable as it might seem, I forgot in 2018. An immediate family member had died, and another was in the hospital. I did not check my secondary email account where the notice was sent until ten days past the due payment date. The SMS text reminder never arrived. I was too late.
If the marriage celebrant registration invoice remains unpaid after 60 days from the date of issue (the legislated ‘charge payment day’), under section 39FB of the Marriage Act 1961, the celebrant must be deregistered. There is no discretion even when circumstances like a sudden illness, a death in the family or even a domestic violence situation affects the timing of the payment.
Quite naturally, we all tend to sit by passively and accept laws without much thought or consideration given to their implications unless personally affected. But seemingly well-intentioned laws can backfire, expose absurd processes, and unjust outcomes.
One day I met all the requirements to practise as a Commonwealth-registered marriage celebrant, and the next I did not.
To re-register, I had to wait several months (after I completed the red tape, obtained three referee reports and paid the $600 application fee plus $40 for a police history check) to satisfy the requirements, and ‘once again’ practise as a Commonwealth registered marriage celebrant.
The re-registration process is even more absurd and costly for marriage celebrants with over 10 years’ experience. They are required to retrain if they don’t have the current training requirements of a Cert IV in Celebrancy or an equivalent tertiary qualification. It’s not surprising therefore when a celebrant with 20 years’ experience and well over a thousand marriage ceremonies under her belt, decided that to register ‘again’ was a complete waste of time, effort and money.
The current processes and law illustrate the defects in the legislation and the serious implications of mandatory deregistration.
2018 – the same year I was deregistered – saw the highest number of celebrants deregistered since the introduction of the cost-recovery charge. It’s highly likely the massive jump from 170 celebrants deregistered in 2017 to 370 in 2018 can be attributed to the omission of an SMS text reminder to celebrants from the Marriage Law and Celebrants Section (MLCS), as in previous years.
The reason the text message was not sent in 2018 was that the part of the department that had that capacity was moved in a Machinery of Government change.
Thankfully, this year, the MLCS is using a provider for the text reminders to help prevent celebrants from missing the payment date and deregistration. But that doesn’t help me. It is also disappointing that the MLCS does not obtain data from deregistered celebrants to determine their reason for non-payment, as this type of information would be useful to improve processes.
Losing my job and informing the couples who booked me to officiate their marriage that it was no longer possible, was gut-wrenching. The couples were forced to find a new celebrant – some within a very short time frame – which caused distress and inconvenience.
The couples chose me because of my personality, service, and reputation to create and deliver a marriage ceremony for one of the most important days in their life. My business reputation was now damaged. Plus, I lost $4,200 income from cancelled weddings which was a significant cost to me and my family.
Being deregistered is one of the worst things that can happen to a marriage celebrant, so I kept my status close. I only told a few couples and celebrants who I felt would understand and not judge. To the others, I simply provided vague responses when asked why I had to cancel the weddings.
From what I’ve gathered, when the annual registration charge and the penalty of deregistration for non-payment were proposed, there was some support from some Celebrant Associations, but strong opposition from most associations.
The charge is a cost recovery levy, rather than a fee. It is imposed on 28% of marriage celebrants in Australia – which is another reason why deregistration for the non-payment of the charge is grossly unfair.
But, before we expend energy and precious time pointing blame and citing obstacles, let’s instead focus on what needs to be done.
The Commonwealth government has the potential to collect 2.2 million dollars from the payment of the 2019 – 2020 annual celebrant registration charge imposed on 9,125 Commonwealth-registered marriage celebrants for the cost of running the Marriage Celebrants Program.
Given this situation, what possibilities can you suggest to improve the efficiency of the marriage celebrant registration charge process? And – while you are at it – improve the celebrant training course and how to effectively disseminate information to celebrants. I have a few ideas, but for now…
Here’s a proposal for the marriage registration charge process
The period to renew a marriage celebrant registration is from 1 July to 31 August every two years. After August 31, there is a grace period of 60 days in which celebrants can renew their registration by paying the registration charge plus a late fee. During this period, the celebrants registration remains active.
After October 31, the celebrant’s registration status changes to inactive. In the two years following this, the celebrant can apply to reactive their registration. They must complete a ‘re-activation’ application and show proof that they have caught up with continuing education requirements and legislative knowledge. An application fee applies, as well as the renewal charge.
After 2 years, if the celebrant has not reactivated their registration, the status is deactivated. If a former marriage celebrant wishes to be authorised to solemnise marriages under Australian law, they can reapply through the normal process. And, they may qualify for recognised prior learning which accounts for the skills, knowledge, and experience that the celebrant possesses.
Here’s how to take action
Contact the Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations – The Hon Christian Porter MP for a review and legislative change of Section 39B of the Marriage Act 1961. If you like the proposal above, include it as a discussion point, or send your ideas. And, ask others to contact Christian Porter to request a change.
If you are not a member of a Celebrant Association, consider researching and joining one. There are Associations with fabulous celebrants as members who have a wealth of knowledge and experience about the ‘essence’ of the celebrant program. Enter the adventure, learn, ask questions and get involved.
Let us create possibilities that support and encourage each other as celebrants to improve and grow. That way, we can be the best, and give the public the best.