What's in a name?

Posted by Catherine Morgan on
When it comes to naming children, parents will naturally give careful thought to this. Some parents will choose names that are family names or have a preference for traditional names, whilst others will choose names that are more modern or be drawn to more individual or creative forenames. However, is there a limit to a parent's creativity when it comes to naming their children? There may be times when a parent's choice is so ill-considered that it could cause the child embarrassment during their life or be offensive. If so, can the Court intervene, or will a child simply have to wait to change their name in adulthood?

In a recent case before the Court of Appeal, Re C (Children) (2016),  it was held that where the parent's choice of forename would be likely to cause a child "significant harm" then the local authority could apply to the Court. This is only envisaged as a remedy in the most extreme cases and will only be appropriate in very rare circumstances. The decision stresses that this is not something that the Court will undertake lightly and it is only reserved for cases where the parent's choice of forename was "beyond the unusual, bizarre or foolish" to the extent where the choice of name would be likely to cause a child significant harm.

Here the case concerned twins born to a mother who suffered long-standing mental health problems, to the extent that the mother was unable to look after the children and they were placed into foster care as a temporary measure. The father was not known to the mother.

The local authority were concerned by the mother's choice of name for the children: "Preacher" for the boy and "Cyanide" for the girl. Arguably, Preacher has positive connotations but naming the girl Cyanide, after a poison, was something that caused the Court concern due to its negative meaning. The contrast between the two names reinforced the Court's concerns, even though the mother had hoped to persuade the court that Cyanide had positive connotations, such as being found in the leaves of laurel and hydrangea plants and " being responsible for killing Hitler", but was not successful in doing this.

If a less controversial name was chosen for the baby girl, the mother's choice of Preacher for her son would have been acceptable. However, if the boy's name was Preacher, as picked by his mother, and the girl given a different name, chosen by someone else, this could in itself cause the girl emotional damage and impact upon the children's relationship as siblings.  Therefore the Court held that it was best for both children in the long run, if they are each given new forenames.

This is an interesting case, which demonstrates the Court curtailing the authority of a parent (here, to choose the name for her children), so as to uphold the best interests of the children. It serves as a reminder that making decisions for children is a responsibility, rather than a right, and also reminds us that in every decision concerning children's interests, their welfare will be the Court's paramount concern when it makes decisions for them.

About the Author

Photograph of Catherine Morgan

Catherine is a Family Law solicitor and a Resolution accredited specialist, she advises clients in divorce/civil partnership proceedings, financial remedy negotiations and in private law Children Act matters, as well as Cohabitants' disputes and in drafting Deeds of Cohabitation and Pre-Nuptial/Post-Nuptial Agreements.

Catherine Morgan
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