The recent case Re C (A Child : Removal of forename) has caused a bit of a stir, even making it into at least three national newspapers, although their reports were mainly centred around the suggestion that it was a waste of legal aid money rather than being focused on the decision itself. For those who have not read the papers, the decision related to the removal of a child’s middle name, which the mother wanted to do and the father opposed. The court went along with the mother, holding that the continued use of the middle name would damage the child’s emotional welfare.
We are not told what the name was, only that it was a “normal well established name”, but was shared with “a notorious public figure”, and was therefore “infected with bad connotations”, hence the mother’s application. I did think it might have been ‘Theresa’ or ‘Jeremy’ (we are also not told what sex the child is), but I suppose they are not sufficiently notorious. Sufficiently notorious figures that do spring to mind are the likes of Jimmy Saville, Rolf Harris and Myra Hindley. The name is likely to be slightly unusual, so as to be associated particularly with that notorious figure.
Anyway, enough idle speculation. The question that surely arises from the case is this: what forenames would a court be likely to find unacceptable?
The starting-point for such an investigation must surely be the rules relating to the registration of the birth of a child. Many countries prescribe that certain names cannot be registered (or even have a list of approved names, which must be used). For example, in Japan the name Akuma, which means ‘the devil’ is apparently banned. In this country, however, there are no banned names, and the only restriction is that the Registrar of Births can refuse to register a name if it is deemed offensive. Clearly, in Re C the child’s middle name passed that test, but then failed the welfare test used by the court. Of course, the name may only have become notorious after the child’s birth, but even if it was notorious at the time I very much doubt that the Registrar would have refused to register it.
So on to the court’s view of the forename. As mentioned, the court will use the welfare test to decide whether a forename is appropriate, i.e, would the child’s welfare be harmed if the name was used? So the next question is: what would a court consider makes a name harmful?
To my knowledge there have been few court decisions in this country relating to inappropriate forenames. In fact, the only one that springs to mind was the Court of Appeal decision last year C (Children). This was a slightly odd case in which the local authority obtained an order restraining a mother, who had a history of mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, from registering her twin children with the names “Preacher” and “Cyanide”. She said that “Cyanide” was a good name, as it was the poison that was responsible for killing Hitler. The question for the court was whether it had the power to prevent a parent with parental responsibility from registering a child with the forename of his or her choice. The Court of Appeal held that it did, although it was a power which should be used only in the most extreme cases and only with the sanction of a High Court Judge. This was such a case, and therefore the mother’s appeal was dismissed.
Connections with Hitler in the names are, of course, obviously likely to fall foul of the courts. There has been a long-running case in New Jersey in which a white supremacist had his children taken away from him after he named them ‘Adolf Hitler’ and ‘Eva Braun’. I’m sure that the courts over here would take a similarly dim view of such names (as would the Registrar of Births, although obviously the parents could change the child’s name after registration).
So we know that names of notorious people might not be acceptable, but what else? Well, there can be no definitive list, but two thoughts come to mind.
Firstly, names of objects or places that have some sort of notoriety could be deemed unacceptable. For example, the name of a weapon such as ‘Flicknife’ or, continuing the Nazi theme, the name ‘Auschwitz’.
Secondly, names that are likely to lead to the child being ridiculed by his or her peers could clearly fall foul of the welfare test. We have all heard of some pretty strange names that celebrities give to their children. One often wonders if those children might be given a hard time at school over such names, and if this happened it might be enough for a court to decide to change or remove the name.
I’m sure it wouldn’t be too difficult to come up with other obvious examples. The difficulty arises with the less obvious. Where, as in Re C, the name is quite normal it is clearly for the parent seeking to change the name to prove that it is detrimental to the child. I would suggest that such cases are likely to remain very rare, especially as that parent would have agreed to the name originally (assuming they had parental responsibility), so the reasons for the name to be unacceptable must usually have arisen since the child’s birth. In short, I don’t think that Re C is likely to open a floodgate of similar applications, no matter how much a parent may dislike a name. It is easy to envisage, for example, a parent wanting to remove a name because it ‘belongs’ to the other parent’s family. However, that would clearly not be sufficient reason for a court to remove the name (and it may indeed be a reason to keep it).
If you want to read the report of Re C, you can find it here.