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In a week during which the Court of Appeal has decided that the names of certain celebrities involved in some kind of scandal can finally be revealed [NB this judgment has since been overturned!], there has been less publicity about their grappling with a different battle about names. This one goes to the heart of the question of what it is to be a parent. Do you have the right to name your children as you wish?

In certain countries around the world, children’s names have to be chosen from a prescribed list of approved names. Other countries expressly prohibit surnames as first names, or names that do not clearly indicate the gender of the child – Taylor Swift could not have been Taylor Swift if she were born in Germany, for instance. There are no such rules in the UK. There is a discretion for the registrar not to allow a name if it is offensive, but otherwise you can usually name your child with complete freedom.

The case that the Court of Appeal was asked to consider was quite unusual. A woman had given birth to twins, a boy and a girl. Because of her history of severe mental health issues, it was inevitable that there were going to be care proceedings in respect of the children brought by the local authority on their birth – her three other children were already being looked after. The names the mother chose for her babies were Preacher for the boy, and Cyanide for the girl.

The local authority considered that these names could cause the children harm, and applied to court to be able to veto the names.

The Court of Appeal found that the court had a power under the court’s inherent jurisdiction to prohibit the registration of a name that it considered would cause a child significant harm. The inherent jurisdiction of the court is the ultimate catch-all, but only to be used in really exceptional circumstances. A care order, the court held, was not enough for the local authority to interfere with the birth mother’s naming of her children – it was necessary to bring the matter before the court for a proper determination.

In this case, the court were not overly concerned by the name Preacher in itself, but concluded that the name Cyanide was likely to cause the little girl significant harm. It said,

“In my judgment, giving this child the name “Cyanide” as her forename is capable, without more, of giving the court reasonable cause to believe that she would be likely to suffer significant emotional harm:

  1. i) in relation to her sense of identity and self-worth, particularly here as a child who cannot be brought up by either of her own parents. It is hard to see how (regardless of what justification may be given to her by loving carers) the girl twin could regard being named after this deadly poison as other than a complete rejection of her by her birth mother; a rejection not replicated, in her eyes, in respect of her twin brother.
  2. ii) to her in her day to day life as a child. Whilst teasing and ridicule are a natural part of childhood and, in moderation, help to develop resilience, such a name potentially exposes the girl twin to treatment which goes far beyond acceptable teasing. Further it would be wilful of the court to fail to factor into its consideration the power of social media and the very real danger that a child called “Cyanide” would soon be a victim of “cyber bullying”

In my judgment this is one of those rare cases where the court, in the exercise of its inherent jurisdiction, should intervene to protect the girl twin from the emotional harm that I am satisfied she would suffer if called “Cyanide”.”

But what about Preacher? Here, the court felt that although the name itself was not likely to cause the boy significant harm, allowing the boy twin to keep the name given to him by his natural parent might adversely affect the girl twin. It would be better in these particular circumstances if the twins’ half-siblings, with whom they lived, were able to choose names for both the babies rather than only for one of them.

This case is very unusual, both with respect to the context – twin children, where one name is cabable of causing harm – the early involvement of the local authority, and the names involved. The Court was very clear that it is only in exceptional cases that they will interfere with a parent’s first parental act in naming their child.

As the BBC reports, “there have been two children named Superman in the UK since 1984, along with six boys named Gandalf and 29 Gazzas, according to figures released last year by the genealogy website findmypast.com. There are even 36 Arsenals of both sexes.” The bar for intervention in the naming of a child is set very high, and this case does not alter that. If you would like to discuss this, or any other family law matter, do give us a call on 01223 443333 and make an appointment with Gail, Sue, Simon, Adam or Tricia.

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