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OPD for marriage celebrants – discussion paper

Marriage
Marriage celebrants​
Publication date

Ongoing professional development for marriage celebrants – discussion paper

The Attorney-General’s Department (AGD) manages the Marriage Celebrants Program on behalf of the Australian Government. AGD is committed to periodically reviewing the program to ensure it is cost effective and efficient.

The program has the legitimate aims of applying appropriate scrutiny to aspiring marriage celebrants; supporting the availability of marriage services across Australia; and regulating marriage celebrants’ performance to ensure professional, knowledgeable and legally correct marriage services for marrying couples.

The purpose of this discussion paper is to seek the views of marriage celebrants, their representatives, training providers and other interested stakeholders about ongoing professional development (OPD) for marriage celebrants into the future. OPD is intended to promote professionalism for marriage celebrants and this should be balanced with the need to ensure reasonable compliance costs for marriage celebrants and be efficient to administer.

Introduction and background

The Marriage Act 1961 (the Marriage Act) and the Marriage Regulations 2017 (the Regulations) place certain obligations on marriage celebrants, with failure to comply with those obligations resulting in possible disciplinary action. One of these obligations is to undertake listed OPD activities that take at least five hours to complete each calendar year, unless an exemption has been granted. OPD must include the completion of any compulsory activities as determined by the Registrar of Marriage Celebrants (the Registrar). The activities and the providers of the activities are listed in the Marriage (Celebrant Professional Development) Statement (the Statement). The requirements for OPD for marriage celebrants are specified in paragraph 39G(1)(b) of the Act and section 53 of the Regulations.

Well trained marriage celebrants provide the public with a professional and competent service. Robust pre‑registration training requirements for marriage celebrants are necessary given the legal responsibilities placed upon them as individuals. It is also essential for marriage celebrants to maintain current knowledge and skills through appropriate professional development. AGD is committed to ensuring that OPD appropriately supports marriage celebrants to maintain current knowledge and skills, and is efficient to administer.

Since 2003, marriage celebrants have been required to complete OPD requirements. Over time, and following separate consultation processes with stakeholders, AGD has implemented administrative changes to streamline the approach for the delivery of OPD, simplify the process for marriage celebrants to choose activities they consider appropriate to complete, and provide for diversity of activities choice for celebrants. OPD has also provided the opportunity for marriage celebrants who did not undertake pre-registration training to update their knowledge and skills.

The need for change

Pre-registration training and OPD

OPD was introduced to the Program, together with formal training requirements for aspiring marriage celebrants, to improve the professional standards of marriage celebrants and ensure that marrying couples could access quality and legally correct services. OPD obligations for marriage celebrants have not changed materially since the time of introduction, although there have been some refinements, most significantly in 2010, when the Certificate IV qualification was introduced as pre-registration training and OPD commenced being delivered by a selected panel.

Currently, pre-registration training is the Certificate IV in Celebrancy. The Certificate IV consists of 13 units. Of those, six (6) units are core and seven (7) are electives. Of the seven (7) electives, at least three (3) units from the celebrancy group of electives are required. If more elective units are required then they can be selected from the list of 21 non-celebrancy electives. If registration as a marriage celebrant is going to be sought, the three (3) specific marriage celebrancy units must be included as part of the seven (7) electives. The packaging rules for the Certificate IV in Celebrancy, including the list of all units, is on the training.gov.au website. Previously, in earlier iterations of pre-registration training, the three marriage celebrancy units were spread over four units and before that, they were bundled into one unit. Ultimately, the competency outcomes for the specific marriage celebrancy units have not significantly changed, with the syllabus remaining focussed on the legal requirements for marriage and celebrant obligations under the Marriage Act. Significant changes to the Marriage Act were introduced in December 2017 for marriage equality. Accordingly, AGD developed a compulsory activity for delivery in 2018 as well as new and updated resources for trainers and celebrants.

Under current OPD policy, marriage celebrants must complete OPD activities delivered by a provider on AGD’s panel, undertake a Certificate IV in Celebrancy unit, or attend a conference delivered by a celebrant association. Completion of a compulsory activity is only required where there are significant changes to legislation, guidelines or the program. In 2019 and 2020, the Registrar did not specify a single activity as a compulsory activity. In lieu of no single compulsory activity, the Registrar requires that celebrants complete at least one of a number of activities listed in Table 1 of Schedule 1 to the Statement. These activities may include one of the OPD activities with marriage celebrancy content; one of the Certificate IV in Celebrancy units; or attendance at an approved conference delivered by a celebrant association. Celebrants can choose from activities listed in either Table 1 or Table 2 to make up the five hour OPD requirement if necessary. It is up to each individual celebrant to identify OPD activities from the list and apply to an organisation listed as delivering the activity/ies, unit, or conference to undertake that activity within the year.

Many OPD activities are effectively smaller and / or shorter courses of the Certificate IV units and largely duplicate pre-registration training– it is estimated that there may be up to 80 per cent of activities listed in the 2020 Statement which largely duplicate pre-registration training. At the time of writing there are 9,397 registered marriage celebrants. Only six (6) per cent of all currently registered marriage celebrants (553) do not hold a pre-registration qualification and more than 60 percent of currently registered marriage celebrants hold the Certificate IV in Celebrancy. Of these less than one (1) per cent of currently registered marriage celebrants (50) obtained the Certificate IV after they were registered. The remaining registered celebrants hold a previous iteration of the pre‑registration qualification. For a significantly high number of marriage celebrants, OPD activities currently available duplicate previous training.

OPD Administration

AGD’s administration of OPD continues to be resource intensive. For approximately three months before the commencement of OPD delivery each year, AGD approves activities based on outlines submitted by panel members. Where the activity outline indicates marriage law content, the activity must be provided to AGD for review. AGD reviews, and where necessary, corrects marriage law-related content and outdated information. AGD considers association conferences for approval as OPD activities; develops the list of approved professional development activities and the accompanying explanatory statement for publication on the Federal Register of Legislation. AGD also uploads reports it receives from the OPD panel and celebrant associations on celebrants’ completion of OPD, which often requires liaison with the panel and/or associations to correct reporting errors.

Each year the Registrar monitors OPD compliance. In 2019, of the total number of marriage celebrants who were required to complete OPD, 96 per cent of marriage celebrants fulfilled their OPD obligation (in the five previous years to then, the completion rate has been between 95-97%). However AGD continues to receive enquiries relating to the legal requirements of marriage and celebrant obligations under the Marriage Act that. The questions range from marriage celebrant obligations to maintain their registration to requirements for solemnising marriage. These topics are already covered by the OPD activities included on the OPD Statement. AGD continues to also receive information from other sources such as through complaints about marriage celebrants or BDMs about the most common mistakes BDMs are seeing in the submission of paperwork.

OPD Consultation

From 1 to 22 October 2019, AGD released a survey seeking feedback on opportunities to streamline OPD requirements, including whether OPD should be reduced to one hour. Approximately 2200 responses were received. The results of the 2019 survey indicated mixed support for streamlining OPD.

The results in brief:

  • 43 per cent of survey respondents agreed that reducing OPD from five hours to one hour per year would allow celebrants to maintain core competencies for solemnising marriage (survey question 8).
  • 54 per cent of survey respondents agreed that a one hour OPD activity focused on key legal skills and knowledge would enable marriage celebrants to maintain the competencies required for the legal requirements for solemnising marriage (survey question 9).
  • 65 per cent of survey respondents agreed that the celebrant self-service portal would be a suitable platform to access an online OPD module (survey question 10).
  • 74 per cent of survey respondents agreed that a compulsory activity through approved training providers is efficient and effective way of ensuring marriage celebrants are aware of important legal and policy developments (survey question 11).
  • 70 per cent of survey respondents agreed marriage celebrants should be encouraged to complete non-compulsory training as part of their own professional development (survey question 12).

The survey results were published on the AGD website on 16 December 2019; and include the key themes arising from comments provided by survey participants in relation to OPD. These survey results form one part of the department’s stakeholder engagement process.

In addition to the 2019 survey feedback received by AGD, three individual and separate submissions were provided to AGD in November 2019 about OPD. The submissions presented different suggestions about what OPD should look like going forward. Options canvassed in these submissions included:

  • Retention of a minimum requirement of five hours of OPD, but provision for celebrants to be able to complete a broader range of OPD options.
  • Alternative methods of OPD regulation such as establishing a ‘points’ system for reportable, self-directed OPD, supplemented by a role for AGD in conducting random audits.
  • Providing for the Registrar to be able to deregister a celebrant for failure to pass an annual mandatory legal knowledge test.
  • Imposition of a requirement to solemnise a minimum number (12) of marriages per calendar year.

Prior to the survey, in March 2019, AGD engaged an external consultant to review the program, with a particular focus on whether AGD is effective and efficient in its administration of the program. The independent review highlighted two areas for improving efficiency, one of which is OPD. The review identified that OPD should be streamlined and activities designed to strengthen key competencies for marriage celebrants. In particular, the review identified that there is no evidence that the current requirement for marriage celebrants to complete five hours of OPD each year has had a substantive impact on the core legal and practical competencies of celebrants. Both anecdotally and through previous surveys, many marriage celebrants have echoed this view, indicating that the only part of OPD they think is of value is the compulsory activity – a one or two hour activity developed by AGD, focussing on legal aspects of solemnising marriage or program policy developments. The review recommended that OPD should be reduced from five hours to one hour, and include formal knowledge or competency-based assessment in the one hour activity to ensure current knowledge and skills are maintained by celebrants.

Previous consultations included the 2016 and 2017 survey which resulted in the 2018 OPD policy paper are available on the AGD website.

In March 2020, AGD released a one hour online (elective) OPD activity and included it in Table 2 of the OPD Statement for marriage celebrants to choose to complete if they wished to do so as part of fulfilling their 2020 OPD obligation. The activity was included in Table 2 of the Statement in accordance with subsection 53(6) of the Regulations. The activity comprises questions focussed on the legal obligations of marriage celebrants and the requirements for marriage. The activity is available to be completed through the celebrant self-service portal at no additional cost to marriage celebrants. As at December 2020, 538 celebrants completed the free online activity. The activity is designed to enable celebrants to repeat the questions they may have answered incorrectly up to four times, with the intention that celebrants have the opportunity to research the answers using resources such as the ‘Guidelines on the Marriage Act 1961 for authorised celebrants’ and fact sheets on the AGD website. Of the number of celebrants who completed the online activity 94 per cent (508) of celebrants successfully completed the activity achieving the pass score (22/25) within three attempts. Of those, 54 per cent (276) successfully completed the activity in the first attempt.

Role of marriage celebrant associations and networks

AGD acknowledges that marriage celebrant associations and networks have a significant role to play in their contribution to the advancement of the professionalism of celebrancy, particularly in relation to the ceremonial aspects of marriage. Associations and networks facilitate valuable networking and peer learning opportunities through conferences and other networking activities.

Associations and networks share their interest in their common goal to advance the professionalism of celebrancy. In doing so, they have an opportunity to be innovative and creative to provide appropriate opportunities outside the legislative framework– and therefore not require the approval of the regulator (AGD). This would provide additional options for those celebrants who have an interest in undertaking further development beyond that required in the legislation.

Options for streamlining OPD to improve efficiency

Consistent with the Australian Government’s broader deregulation agenda, options for regulating OPD should be designed and applied in the most efficient and timely way, with the least cost on business or the community. The Government’s position is that where regulation is required, it should be implemented with the lightest touch. Further information about the Government’s deregulation policy is on the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet’s website (https://www.pmc.gov.au/domestic-policy).

AGD has identified the options below, drawing on stakeholder consultation processes undertaken to date. AGD seeks stakeholder feedback on these options.

Option A. Administrative refinements, minor regulatory improvements for efficiency

Annual compulsory activity

As noted above, in 2019 and 2020, the Registrar did not specify one compulsory activity but instead required marriage celebrants to complete at least one activity from Table 1 of the OPD Statement. Table 1 activities focus on the legal obligations of marriage celebrants and include previous years’ compulsory activities which were developed by AGD as well as activities developed by approved panel providers. Option A would see the compulsory activity implemented annually. The compulsory activity would be developed by AGD, and focus on the legal obligations ensuring that marriage celebrants remain current in their skills and knowledge for the legal solemnisation of marriage. The compulsory activity would be available through the celebrant self-service portal at no additional cost to marriage celebrants.

Elective activities

With an annual compulsory activity focussing on the legal requirements for marriage, elective activities would focus on the non-legal aspects of marriage celebrancy, minimising duplication of activity content that AGD would need to approve. An AGD selected panel of approved OPD providers would be responsible for developing activities and content. There would be no requirement to submit activity content to AGD for approval as AGD is not the expert on content relating to the non-legal aspects of marriage. Approved providers would be responsible for the accuracy and currency of all of their activity content. Activity outlines, which include a summary of the activity, would continue to be required to be provided to AGD for the purpose of listing the activity on the OPD Statement.

Associations would continue to submit their conference agendas to AGD each year for the conference to be included on the OPD Statement.

Streamline the activities listed on the OPD Statement

More than 200 activities are listed on the 2020 OPD Statement. Seventy (70) of those, are listed in Table 1 of the Statement. As noted above, marriage celebrants must complete at least one activity from Table 1 and if more hours are required to fulfil the five hour obligation they can choose additional activities from either Table 1 or 2. There are a significant number of OPD activities currently listed in the OPD Statement which are either not made available in the approved provider’s bundling of activities or are not selected by celebrants. However, AGD has invested resources to review the activities, and where necessary, corrected content for many of the activities listed on the OPD Statement. This is resource intensive and significantly increases the cost of administering OPD.

In addition to a compulsory activity, under this option, the number of activities listed on the OPD Statement would be streamlined, removing the listing of excess activities that are either not made available or are not being selected by celebrants. Celebrants would then have a genuine choice from the list of activities on the Statement.

Celebrant self-reporting of OPD

AGD has enhanced the celebrant self-service portal to enable celebrants to self-report their OPD completion and has developed supporting guidance material to assist celebrants with this process. Celebrant self‑reporting OPD completion through the self-service portal would be encouraged, which would further streamline OPD administration and compliance monitoring.

Option A would maintain a requirement for five hours of OPD.

Option A – summary
  • An annual compulsory activity, developed by AGD, focussing on the legal obligations to ensure that marriage celebrants remain current in their skills and knowledge for the legal solemnisation of marriage.
  • The compulsory activity would be available through the celebrant self-service portal at no additional cost to marriage celebrants.
  • Other options for completing the compulsory activity would be available for marriage celebrants who cannot access the self-service portal.
  • Streamlining activities listed on the OPD Statement removing the listing of excess activities that are either not available or are not being selected by celebrants. Celebrants would then have a genuine choice from the list of activities on the Statement.
  • The panel would report to AGD, with optional celebrant self-reporting encouraged.
  • Approved panel members and associations would continue to apply to list activities and conferences on the OPD Statement.
  • Option A would maintain a requirement for five hours of OPD.

Advantages

  • An advantage of option A would be that it would result in more targeted training.

Disadvantages

  • A disadvantage of option A would be continued regulation and administration by the AGD that is not necessarily fit for purpose. As identified in the 2019 review, there is no evidence that the current requirement for marriage celebrants to complete five hours of OPD each year has had a substantive impact on the core legal and practical competencies of celebrants.

Option B. Maintain and strengthen current knowledge and skills, reduce regulatory burden, increase program efficiency

The administrative refinements identified in option A above, combined with additional measures indicated in option B, may provide for further opportunity to streamline OPD, reduce regulatory burden and increase program efficiency.

Subsection 53(1) of the Marriage Regulations specifies that OPD activities must take at least five hours to complete and include any activities that are compulsory for the year.

Under option B, in addition to the measures identified in option A, the number of OPD hours required to be completed annually would be revised so that that there is a minimum of one hour OPD but no more than two hours annually. Marriage celebrants would fulfil their OPD obligation by completing the annual compulsory activity. The duration of the compulsory activity would be subject to the amount of material that the activity covers. So for example, in years where there are significant changes to legislation or policy, then a two hour compulsory activity may be required. Irrespective of the compulsory activity content, it would be developed by AGD (as has always been the case) and delivered through the self-service portal as described in option A above. The activity would include an assessment component.

In developing the compulsory activity, AGD envisages seeking input from marriage celebrant associations and networks, as well as state and territory BDMs to ensure that the topic is targeted and relevant.

Following the completion of the compulsory activity for the year, marriage celebrants would have fulfilled their OPD obligation for that year. Marriage celebrants would then be free to identify any other development or learning opportunities for themselves to fulfil their individual interests or needs as a marriage celebrant, including networking opportunities.

Option B – summary
  • An annual compulsory activity, developed by AGD, focussing on the legal obligations to ensure that marriage celebrants remain current in their skills and knowledge for the legal solemnisation of marriage. The compulsory activity would be available through the celebrant self-service portal at no additional cost to marriage celebrants.
  • Other options for completing the compulsory activity would be available for marriage celebrants who cannot access the self-service portal.
  • The number of OPD hours required to be completed annually would be revised so that there is a minimum of one hour OPD but no more than two hours annually. The duration of the activity would depend on the amount of material that the compulsory activity covers.
  • To ensure the compulsory activity topic for the year is targeted and relevant, in developing the activity, AGD envisages seeking input from marriage celebrant associations and networks, as well as state and territory BDMs.
  • Celebrants would self-report OPD completion through the portal.
  • Marriage celebrants would fulfil their OPD obligation by completing the annual compulsory activity.
  • Marriage celebrants would then be free to identify any other development or learning opportunities for themselves to fulfil their individual interests or needs as a marriage celebrant.

Advantages

  • OPD would be available at no additional cost to marriage celebrants – currently each marriage celebrant pays on average approximately $150 - $200 per year to fulfil their OPD obligation (this amount covers all current options - OPD activities, association conferences and Certificate IV units).
  • There would be less regulation and therefore less costs to administer the program resulting in a reduction in the amount of the annual charge for each marriage celebrant.
  • Marriage celebrants who wish to further develop their individual interests through training may do so, including through the professional development opportunities made available by celebrant associations.

Disadvantages

  • There may be a perception that with the reduction in the number of OPD hours, the professional status of marriage celebrancy is being reduced. AGD considers that this would only be a perception and could be managed with appropriate educational and information materials explaining the reasons for the reduction and change in approach – that is, that the proposed new OPD requirements remove inefficient aspects of the existing approach and are appropriately targeted and fit for purpose.

Option C. Alternative options for OPD into the future

The department notes that some associations have suggested alternative methods of OPD regulation such as establishing a ‘points’ system for reportable, self-directed OPD, through various approved methods (courses, seminars, conferences, written resources, and mentorship programs), and supplemented by a role for AGD in conducting random audits. AGD considers that establishing a points system would require significant administrative changes to the current framework for OPD and the benefits of such an approach would need to be clearly justified. It is not clear to AGD at this stage who or how the approved methods would be defined or determined– for example, whether AGD would be required to approve the courses, seminars, conferences, written resources, and mentorship programs so that marriage celebrants can be confident that the OPD they have selected for the year would count as OPD for that year. AGD would welcome additional stakeholder views on this alternative approach.

Another suggestion is to retain the requirement for five hours OPD but to provide for celebrants to be able to complete a broader range of OPD options. This suggestion was presented in the context that while there are celebrant associations that are content to select one of the approved OPD panel members to deliver OPD at association conferences, some associations may wish to organise their own professional development sessions, to meet the needs of members without engaging approved panel members or providing details for approval by the department. AGD agrees that celebrant associations and networks have an important role to play in providing development opportunities for celebrants without the approval of the department, providing additional options for celebrants who have an interest in undertaking further development beyond that required in the legislation. AGD considers that Option B would provide flexibility for celebrant associations and networks to provide a broad range of development opportunities, whilst ensuring that core competencies are addressed through mandatory OPD.

Additional alternative suggestions for the OPD Program include providing for the Registrar to be able to deregister a celebrant for failure to pass an annual mandatory legal knowledge test and imposition of a requirement to solemnise a minimum number (12) of marriages per calendar year. The context presented for these suggestions are that there are calls from some associations and celebrants for a cap on celebrant numbers or a moratorium on new registrations because marriage celebrants are not solemnising enough ceremonies each year to maintain their skills and knowledge and should therefore be deregistered. It has also been suggested that exemptions could be made available similar to those currently available for OPD.

AGD notes that both of these suggestions would significantly increase the role of AGD as regulator. Deregistration is a serious consequence, reviewable by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. There would need to be a strong justification for imposing such a serious consequence as deregistration in this context. Additionally, it would need to be considered in what circumstances a person who has been deregistered on either ground could apply to be reregistered. Both of these suggestions in option C would also require amendments to the Marriage Act, with any decision about legislative reform of the Marriage Act being a matter for Government and the Parliament. The department questions whether the additional regulatory burden associated with such approaches would achieve any greater improvement in competencies and professionalism than other, lighter touch approaches to OPD regulation, as set out at Options A and B.

AGD invites additional comments.

Conclusion

There are a broad range of OPD frameworks that support different professions throughout Australia. The broad variety of OPD programs reflects the wide range of professions for whom this is a requirement. The approach to the OPD program for marriage celebrants should ensure that promotes a high standard of service by the profession, is efficient and effective for the department to administer, and involves compliance costs for marriage celebrants that are reasonable and proportionate, taking into account the nature of the role of marriage celebrants and the services they provide.

The department considers that options A and B provide this balance, and invites feedback on these options, in addition to any potential alternative frameworks or approaches.