As a family lawyer, I often receive enquiries about changing a child's surname.
Those enquiries come in a multitude of formats ranging from one parent wanting to change the child's surname to match their own or a parent wanting to add their surname into the child's name. Those applications, when made, will be scrutinised and analysed not only from the point of view of whether a change is in the best interests of a child but also the motivation of the parents to request/refuse such a change.
Often, but not always, the court will endorse a child having a ‘link’ to both parents through their surname with the outcome being a double-barrelled surname. The court is less reluctant to ‘remove’ one parent's link in favour of another i.e. replace the paternal surname with the maternal surname or vice versa.
Very seldom do I get enquiries in relation to changing a child's forename. A forename is an identifier which also differentiates that person from other members of a group, it can also be a unifier for example in families where a forename is passed generationally.
Where one parent petitions to have the child's forename changed, this will be subject to in-depth scrutiny with the child's best interests and whether the chosen name would likely cause the child significant harm being at the centre of any decision making. It is only in the most extreme cases that the court will interfere with a parent's choice of name for their child. It is simply not the case that a court will change a child's name because one parent dislikes what another has chosen.
This issue was recently considered in the case of (Re C (Change of Forename—Child in Care)) wherein;
“Cobb J was not persuaded that there were reasonable grounds for believing that the child would suffer significant emotional harm at school and/or in the community if he were named ‘Mia’. Even if he were to face an adverse response, this was unlikely to cause significant harm.”
However, due to the high probability of the child being exposed to harmful intra-family conflict and confusion, amounting to significant harm if he were to continue to to be called ‘Mia’ if he was placed with the paternal family. The name was strongly disliked and would potentially be unfair and unrealistic to require the paternal family to use the name for the rest of the child's life. Accordingly;
“Instead, the judge approved the addition of an alternative forename but made this decision contingent on whether the court ultimately approved the child’s long-term placement with the paternal grandmother. If that care plan were not to be approved, then he held there would be no proper basis for intervening and the application to change the child’s forename would not succeed.”.
In those circumstances, the mother's chosen forenames would not however be expunged from the register but would remain available for the child, should he wish to use them in the future.
This case demonstrates the high threshold set for the court to consider changing a child's forename and the pragmatic approach which can be taken to preserve those links between a parent's chosen forename and the child, notwithstanding circumstances in which an application is granted.
Mr Justice Cobb considered an application to change a child’s forename where it was said that his registered name was likely to cause ridicule and adversely impact on his self-esteem because that name was traditionally considered to be a ‘female’ name.