Police have investigated hundreds of reports over the past decade of people hiding a secret spouse or family from their other half. According to police crime records, officers in England and Wales recorded 599 bigamy offenses in the 10 years to 2021 inclusive.
Bigamy is the offense of marrying someone when they are already married to another person, and can be punished by up to seven years in prison. This is different from polygamy, which is the practice or custom of having more than one wife or husband at the same time.
In the case of polygamy, the spouses generally all know each other and frequently live with the head of the family. For example, polygamy is a fairly common practice among Mormon sects such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And Joe Exotic, the imprisoned star of the infamous Netflix docuseries Tiger King, married two of his zoo workers, John Finlay and Michael Moldanado in a joint ceremony in 2014.
In contrast, bigamists usually keep their partners secret from each other. Polygamy is allowed in some countries, and it is not an offense if a person who now lives in the UK had previously married multiple partners in a country where polygamy is legal.
However, if a polygamist chose to remarry while in the UK, it would be considered bigamy and a crime.
Zahra Pabani, family law partner at Irwin Mitchell, said: ‘Bigamy is a criminal offense here in the UK, but other countries may have little or no consequences for bigamists – which is why often , when this happens, it is in two different countries. The level of deception required to execute the charade is intense and stressful for those involved – even the bigamist at its heart.
“It’s always shocking when this happens and leaves the partner completely blindsided. If you suspect your partner of bigamy, you need two things: concrete evidence and reporting the offense to the police. Some would hire a private investigator to get evidence, but you can’t just rely on a hunch – solid evidence is needed.It’s also always a good idea to speak to a family lawyer or a professional who can review your options.
Crimes have plummeted during the pandemic – especially during lockdowns which may have posed a challenge for anyone with two spouses and potentially two families.
Between April and June 2020 – when the country was under the toughest lockdown restrictions – there were eight breaches nationwide, compared to 18 in the same period of 2019 and 17 in 2021.
Over the whole year, 58 bigamy crimes were recorded by the police in 2021, 55 the previous year, then 86 in 2019, the year before the pandemic, 87 in 2018 and 57 in 2017.
Of the cases over the past five years where investigations were completed, just over one in 10 (10.8%) resulted in a person being charged or summoned.
But in 82.4% of completed cases, the alleged bigamist went unpunished. This was either due to problems with the evidence – including the victim not wanting to press charges – or further investigation or prosecution not being deemed to be in the public interest.