Naming or shaming?

by Anna Rhodes, Solicitor, Family Team, ARhodes@LawBlacks.com, 0113 227 9251

Choosing baby names: a legal battle in the making?

Adolf, Elvis, Madonna. Upon hearing these names most of us will immediately think of the public figures behind them. But why do we automatically draw (good or bad) connotations from names? Aren’t they just names? Or is there more to them?

Names are our identity and in some cultures, are thought to determine our destiny. They can have religious or sentimental meaning, reflect a person’s class or just be different to the norm (think Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s daughter, Apple, or Jamie and Jools Oliver’s daughter, River Rocket).

Names can be a sticking point for people and are often legally changed. Many celebrities have changed their names, for example, actor and all-round cool guy Jamie Foxx is actually Eric Marlon Bishop. Is Jamie Foxx a ‘better’ name? He obviously thought so.

Names are important to people and adults can legally change their name by deed poll but, what about children?

Can a parent change their child’s name?

Whether a parent can change their child’s name depends on who has parental responsibility (“PR”) for the child.

If both parents are married then they both have PR. If they both agree to the change then they can legally change their child’s name. If the parents are not married but both have PR for the child (because the father is on the birth certificate or there is a court order in place) both must consent to the change of name (preferably in writing) for it to be allowed in law. If an unmarried mother wishes to change the name and the father does not have PR then she can legally change the name without consent. However, the father could apply to court to prohibit this from happening, so it is best practice to get consent.

If there is an existing Child Arrangements Order in place then no person can change the child’s surname without the consent of all people with PR or without permission of the court.

If everyone with PR agrees to the name change then you can just start using the name or, for the purpose of official organisations (such as the Passport Office), you could have a change of name deed prepared.

What if one parent objects?

If a person with PR will not consent then an application for permission can be made to the court. When the court is deciding whether to grant an application to change a child’s name, the primary consideration is the child’s welfare and whether the use of a name is in the child’s best interests, not the parents.

This issue often arises in the case of separated parents where one parent wants to revert to the use of their maiden name for the child’s surname or where one parent re-marries and wants to change the child’s surname to that of their new spouse. However, a court should not make an order to change a child’s surname unless there is some evidence that it would lead to an improvement in their welfare. In practice, it is extremely hard to change a child’s surname if parents with PR do not agree. This is due to the long-term interests of a child in retaining an outward link with the parent with whom that child does not live.

The court recently considered the welfare of the child when a mother applied to change her child’s middle name because it was associated with a “notorious” public figure.   The father would not consent to the change as he liked using the child’s middle name.   However, the court allowed the change, explaining that whilst the name was not offensive per se it “was infected with bad connotations” and was enough for the use of the name to harm the child’s emotional welfare in the future. The name was not made public so we can only speculate as to whom it related.

This case illustrates just how important it is to choose the right name for your child and the difficulties faced by parents in changing a child’s name when the other parent objects.

Blacks Solicitors LLP
City Point
29 King Street
Leeds, LS1 2HL
0113 207 0000

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