As with any rule of this kind there are exceptions (and the list is a growing one) and one of the most curious exceptions is the crime of bigamy. Under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 s.57, a British citizen who undergoes a bigamous marriage ceremony anywhere in the world (i.e. knowing or suspecting that they are already married) can be prosecuted for the crime of bigamy in England. An example of the application of this rule is the prosecution in 1901 of the second Earl Russell, older brother of the philosopher Bertrand Russell - a case which is also an early example of the, now popular, Nevada wedding.
|The trial of Earl Russell before the House of Lords|
It is worth asking why it was that bigamy should have been treated as one of the few offences under English criminal law of extraterritorial application in the nineteenth century. (Why prosecute for bigamous marraiges committed abroad when you would not prosecute for murder or other serious crimes?) One possible answer to this might be that most murders committed abroad would crimes under the law where they took place, and the authorities there would be expected to prosecute. By contrast, bigamy would normally come to light for the British authorities when the couple were living in England, or as in this case where the first wife sued for divorce in the English courts, thereby making it a problem for the British authorities to deal with. And it is certainly the case that the Victorians were keen to uphold the respectability of marriage.
|The Tichborne Claimant|
Of course, the extraterritorial application of the crime is of little importance these days, as the prosecution (and presumably incidence) of the crime of bigamy has declined with the more ready availiability of divorce and the decline of marraige more generally. There are still prosecutions, but these now more often concern attempts to breach immigration law, pointing to a change in the focus of the crime which will have to be the subject of a separate post.