A.6 CoCA conflict of interest

CoCA discussion of Conflict of Interest/Benefit scenarios - Marriage Act 1963 Preamble:

The Coalition of Celebrant Associations considers the professionalism of marriage celebrants and improving the quality of their celebrancy knowledge and skills, is of primary importance when considering underlying principles of Conflict of Interest.

Complete absence, in fact and/or perception, of conflict of interest is important where service providers have a duty to ensure the professional services they provide are in the best interests of their clients. As a marriage celebrant has a legal responsibility, the celebrant needs to ensure that his/her appointment upholds the law and that other professional, business and/or beneficial relationships do not have a potential or actual conflict of interest. This requirement is to reassure the general public it is safe to assume the services of a professional marriage celebrant are free of conflicts of interest or any hidden benefit to the celebrant.

Conflict of Interest and marriage celebrants

To the best of our knowledge, conflict of interest restrictions have always been imposed on marriage celebrants. It was understood as inappropriate and undesirable for marriage celebrants to provide other wedding industry associated goods and service to their client couples. Such items as, wedding rings, photography, cars, insurance for marrying couples, accommodation services, wedding reception services, etc.

Exceptions to this understanding were goods and services provided that were directly associated with the marriage ceremony itself, such as weddings at the celebrant’s home, items used within the marriage ceremony such as symbols, materials, signing table and chairs, public address system, etc.

Adherence to this stricter view of conflict of interest & benefit, by the Attorney General’s Department, would limit the growth in the numbers of marriage celebrants, and strengthen the public’s perception of the professionalism of celebrants. Section 39C of the Marriage Act 1961 supports this view.

Marriage Act 1961 Section 39C states: Entitlement to be registered as a marriage celebrant

(1) A person is only entitled to be registered as a marriage celebrant if the person is an individual and the Registrar of Marriage Celebrants is satisfied that the person: . . . (c) is a fit and proper person to be a marriage celebrant.

2) In determining whether the Registrar is satisfied that the person is a fit and proper person to be a marriage celebrant, the Registrar must take into account: . . .

(e) Whether the person has an actual or potential conflict of interest between his or her practice, or proposed practice, as a marriage celebrant and his or her business interests or other interests; and (f) whether the person’s registration as a marriage celebrant would be likely to result in the person gaining a benefit in respect of another business that the person owns, controls or carries out;

With changes to the marriage celebrant program in 2003 and huge numbers of celebrants since appointed, it has become even more important to ensure a stricter interpretation of conflict of interest and benefit. Many people have become attracted to marriage celebrancy, some with preexisting wedding industry associations and others who have taken on wedding industry associated goods, services or benefits. Some of these probable conflict of interest situations include migration services, cars, florists, chapels, photography, wedding invitations & other printing, holiday accommodation, relationship counseling, employment within the wedding industry, etc. Reports of significant numbers of probable conflict of interest situations have been reported and continue to be reported, principally by other marriage celebrants, as they are in a better position to hear of such activities.

The Department currently appears to allow a wide range of wedding business related activities, provided the celebrant keeps their business activities “separate” from dealings with their own wedding clients and relies on the celebrant’s sense of duty to not exploit this arrangement. This appears contrary to normal requirements for disclosure by professionals of such arrangements.

Such involvements, in related business activities, are likely to become known or apparent. Allowing such arrangements may be seen as aligning marriage celebrants with additional commercial aspects of the wedding industry and undermine the public’s confidence in marriage celebrants and perception of their professionalism. These requirements of the Act appear not to be clearly or properly understood. Helpful explanations and interpretations of likely conflict of interest situations are essential across a wide and diverse number of situations. Misunderstandings easily occur, confusion as to the precise meaning in respect of a range of situations and the possibility of accidentally, or deliberately, making incorrect assumptions that certain income earning activities undertaken by celebrants are not a conflict of interest.

Discussion - Situations where conflict of interest may or may not apply include:

1.     Where a possible conflict has been submitted to the Registrar for clarification and determined by the Registrar not to be a significant conflict, but conditions imposed (not to offer wedding related goods or services to that celebrant’s own clients).

This still creates a potential conflict. When it becomes known the celebrant is also a supplier of other wedding related goods and/or services, this undermines confidence in the independence & professionalism of the celebrant. It is difficult to monitor the celebrant’s activities and the celebrant, while endeavouring to avoid providing goods and services to the celebrant’s own clients, may still, on occasions, provide such services (owning a chapel & conducting weddings, a separate business printing invitations, selling candles, hiring accommodation, wedding cars, photographer, etc.). Solution: Any involvement with a separate non celebrant wedding industry activity appears too closely allied to completely guarantee avoiding a conflict of interest, therefore should not be allowed.

For example: Scenario 2 - Existing celebrant purchasing a new business/employed in such a business
Scenario 5 – Prospective Celebrant

2.     Difficulties may also arise where a celebrant, in providing ceremonial services, provides what might or might not be considered ceremony associated goods or services ‘included with the fee’.

On the face of it, it is difficult to determine what is provided ‘without additional’ charge and what is not, such as – chapel or other venue, flowers, wedding transport, public address system and music, fireworks, wedding attire, champagne, etc. Some of these things may be viewed as simply marketing support items, public relations, ceremony essentials & clearly not producing income or too trivial to worry about. However, a clearer definition would be helpful. Solution: Perhaps goods & services retained by the celebrant (PA system, table & chairs, etc., are clearly not conflicting services, but flowers, cars, wedding attire and a chapel may be viewed as items or services for which a couple would otherwise have had to pay. Overseeing the various permutations of celebrants’ fees for services, in a deregulated market, creates impossibilities in comparing one celebrant’s services, with or without additional goods and/or services, with another celebrant’s services.

For example: Scenario 4 - Celebrant purchasing a wedding chapel
Scenario 5 – Prospective Celebrant

3.     It would indeed be clearer if it was determined a celebrant, other than the provision of marriage celebrant services, may not have any involvement whatsoever in, or benefit from, any other business, activity, or service that also provides goods or services associated, in any way, with wedding arrangements or with marrying couples, other than the ceremony.

Such a determination would clearly not permit celebrants to be migration agents providing marriage visa services, employees or owners of business such as wedding venues, florists, photographers, wedding cars – accommodation - hire services – receptions – musicians, etc.

For example: Scenario 4 - Celebrant purchasing a wedding chapel
Scenario 5 – Prospective Celebrant

4.     In further clarifying a celebrant’s conflict of interest compliance, a celebrant may not receive commissions from other wedding goods or service providers for referrals of the celebrant’s clients to those other businesses or services (privacy legislation & conditions also apply).

At the same time, amounts paid by the celebrant, to other wedding services, e.g. listings on their websites, are not viewed as conflicting. Such considerations should be seen as part of a celebrant’s marketing activities (advertising, promotion, etc.)

For example: Scenario 6 – Internet advertising

5.     We do not see husband and wife celebrant teams as a conflict of interest unless one or both of them provide other wedding industry services or goods or are employed elsewhere in the wedding industry. They are providing marriage celebrant services.

The beneficial effect is no different to informal arrangements happening amongst and between any marriage celebrants. They are not seen differently to de facto couples, parents & children, cooperation between or amongst celebrants at wedding expos, referrals when unable to provide services, shared advertising, etc. Imposing restrictions specifically on husbands and wives in respect to shared premises, telephones, websites & advertising, etc., appears unduly harsh when there is no restriction placed on other celebrant partnerships or relationships. Solution: To require special conditions of husbands and wives and every other form of relationship or cooperative arrangements between or amongst celebrants appears both unworkable and similarly harsh. In fact, this may be viewed as discrimination based on marital status.

For example: Scenario 1 – Husband and Wife Teams

6.     We see marriage celebrants as having a potential or actual conflict of interest if they have spouses or partners who have businesses or other involvements in the wedding industry, other than as outlined for husband/ wife teams.

This would not apply to other relatives at arm’s length – children, siblings, cousins, etc.

Solution: The marriage celebrant should make this relationship transparent if they make referrals to wedding services owned by other relatives or business partners.

For example: Scenario 1 – Husband and Wife Teams
Scenario 5 – Prospective Celebrant
Scenario 6 – Internet advertising

7.     Celebrants purchasing a business, or employed in a business, ‘outside the wedding industry’, is not a conflict of interest. Nor do we see conducting ceremonies, other than wedding ceremonies, as a conflict of interest.

However, where another income earning business, activity or employment, is related to or within the wedding industry, the current interpretation appears to be, the celebrant provides full details to the Registrar of Marriage Celebrants for a determination in respect of a possible conflict of interest of such other business, benefit or employment. If the Registrar is satisfied there is little or no conflict, such activity may proceed. However, if circumstances change and that other activity changes in nature to become a significant wedding industry activity, the celebrant is required to advise the Registrar and seek further approval to continue or else abandon either, the other activity, or appointment as a marriage celebrant. Such situations share the problem of determining, what is a conflict, to what extent, when does it become a clear conflict and how can the Registrar monitor and ensure compliance with conditions of the determination given. Solution: Zero involvement in any income earning activity associated with the wedding industry would remove any doubt.

For example: Scenario 3 - Celebrant offering counseling services
Scenario 5 – Prospective Celebrant

8.     Aspiring celebrants already owning or employed in a business or service providing goods and/or services to marrying couples, to any extent, would appear not to be eligible for appointment as a marriage celebrant.

The whole idea of providing goods and services to everybody, other than the celebrant’s own clients, is fraught with potential conflict as already discussed. This would include the scenarios provided by the MLCS – purchasing a new business or being employed in a wedding related business, relationship counseling and a wedding harpist (conduct a wedding & play a harp means the celebrant is not in full control of the ceremony!). It appears irrelevant whether there are advertising or other links between the celebrant and the additional business or service. Solution: Providing other wedding industry related goods and services are a conflict! Again, monitoring compliance with any conditional permission granted is unlikely to be effective. For example: Scenario 4 - Celebrant purchasing a Chapel.
Scenario 2 - Existing celebrant purchasing a new business/employed in such a business
Scenario 5 – Prospective Celebrant

9.     Celebrants conducting weddings in their own homes, even in a suitable room, or in their gardens, without additional charge, can be seen as one of the things that might be included in a celebrant’s services.

However, owning a separate wedding chapel, which may or may not be used by other celebrants, or couples who are not that celebrant’s own clients, creates the appearance of a conflict and should be avoided. It is also noted that whilst the ceremony space is part of the ceremony, the chapels or rooms used by Registry Office staff or religious celebrants are not personally owned by the marriage celebrant. Solution: Zero involvement in any income earning activity associated with the wedding industry would remove any doubt.

For example: Scenario 4 - Celebrant purchasing a Chapel
Scenario 2 - Existing celebrant purchasing a new business/employed in such a business
Scenario 5 – Prospective Celebrants

10.  Internet advertising, establishing reciprocal links between businesses, providers and services, etc., have all become part of business marketing and advertising. We do not see these practices usually creating conflict of interest situations.

People generally, including marrying couples, are well aware of all sorts of services, recommendations, cooperative arrangements and listings as part of everyday internet life. The internet has become a major public and business medium. It has long been a practice for wedding venues and services to include marriage celebrant listings and information on their respective websites & elsewhere and to provide information about their preferred suppliers. We are unaware of any such information disseminated as requiring marrying couples to use any of those services exclusively.

For example: Scenario 6 – Internet advertising

Tony Gelme CoCA Chair – Amended by comments from other delegates.

Last modified on Friday, 09 September 2016 17:33