This was a Court of Appeal decision about whether a parent can be prevented from giving their children names of their choosing. In this case, the mother had chosen the names “Preacher” and “Cyanide” for her newborn twins.
Could she be prevented from officially registering these names?
Unlike France, where Registrars themselves have a right of veto, British Registrars can raise eyebrows and gently persuade, but they have no power to prevent a parent giving a name that they consider unsuitable.
Do the Courts have power to stop a parent doing so? Does a Local Authority?
The Court of Appeal ruled that the answer was yes, but that the correct route to follow was more complex than one might first think.
- The issue to be determined is whether there is power in this jurisdiction to prevent a parent with parental responsibility from registering a child with the forename of his or her choice. If the answer to that question is ‘Yes’, the second question (and one which rather unexpectedly requires a detailed consideration of somewhat labyrinthine technicalities) is by what procedural route the court should exercise that power.
- For reasons set out below I am entirely satisfied that the court has such a power. I am equally satisfied that it is a power which should be used only in the most extreme cases and only with the sanction of a High Court Judge.
Re C (Children) 2016
There were going to be care proceedings in any event, due to the mother’s background of mental health difficulties, and the Local Authority in this case applied to the Court under the Inherent Jurisdiction. The Judge at first instance said that they were wrong to do this, and ruled that if they had Interim Care Orders (which they did), then naming a child was a function of parental responsibility, and the LA could overrule this, using the powers in section 33 of the Children Act 1989.
The parent’s protection about the LA using this power of veto would be to make an application under the Human Rights Act that the power had been used disproportionately.
The Court of Appeal took the view that whilst this was technically correct, that blocking the parents choice of name was such an unusual and important decision that it was best for the matter to come before a Court, and thus that inherent jurisdiction actually was the right step.
- In my judgment:
- i) the choosing of a name (forename and surname) for a child by a parent with parental responsibility and
ii) thereafter the act of complying with the duty of the mother and the father to give to the registrar ” information of the particulars required to be registered concerning the birth, and in the presence of the registrar to sign the register” (section 2(1) BDRA 1953)
are each acts of parental responsibility.
- The route chosen in the present case by the judge – section 33(3)CA 1989 supported by an injunction under section 37 SCA 1981 – is superficially attractive, the more so, if Baker J is right, that the mother has a safety net in that she may apply for an injunction under section 8 HRA 1998 where : (i) the proposed course of action by a local authority falls foul of section 33(4) CA 1989, in failing to promote the welfare of the child in question and (ii) where it can be shown to be a unjustifiable interference with the family’s Article 8 rights.
- In my judgment, notwithstanding the possible availability of such ‘tit for tat’ injunctions, the use by a local authority of section 33 CA 1989 in relation to the registration or change of a child’s forename has at least two significant problems:
- i) if the judge is right and the inherent jurisdiction has no role in a case such as this because section 33 CA 1989 provides the complete answer, then, unless a local authority needs to apply for an injunction under section 37 SCA 1981, this comprehensive invasion of the mother’s Article 8 rights will require no prior sanction from the court.
ii) The matter came before the court only because an application was made under section 100 CA 1989 and not by way of an application under section 33 CA 1989. Section 33 CA 1989 provides for an application for leave to be made to the court with regards to the changing of a child’s surname. There is no similar provision in relation to a forename. There is therefore no procedural route within section 33(3) CA 1989 (or by way of a general “catch all” within the Act) whereby a local authority can bring before the court that exceptional case where the court’s guidance is needed as to the use by a local authority of its powers under section 33(3)(b)(i), in respect of the decision itself (as opposed to seeking the protection of the local authority’s powers by way of injunction).
- In my judgment notwithstanding that a local authority may have the statutory power under section 33(3)(b) CA 1989 to prevent the mother from calling the twins “Preacher” and “Cyanide”, the seriousness of the interference with the Article 8 rights of the mother consequent upon the local authority exercising that power, demands that the course of action it proposes be brought before and approved by the court.
(Whilst the provisions of s33(7) prevent the LA changing a child’s surname without permission of the Court, there is no such ban on forename)
It does seem that it must be right for such a serious step to be aired before a Court and debated properly, rather than a Local Authority using their powers under an ICO under s33 to change the name without the opportunity for the Court to properly consider it, and a parent trying to fix it after the event.
Inherent jurisdiction of course requires that the provisions of section 100 apply (that the desired outcome cannot be achieved by any other statutory order, and that significant harm will arise if inherent jurisdiction is not used)
- I am satisfied that the result which the local authority wish to achieve cannot be achieved either:
- i) through the making of an order to which section 100(5) CA 1989 applies in the absence of a provision (or requirement) in section 33 CA 1989 for the local authority to make an application in relation to the giving or changing of a forename of a child or
ii) by way of a prohibited steps order or a specific issue order.
- That leaves the question of “whether there is reasonable cause to believe that if the court’s inherent jurisdiction is not exercised with respect to the child he is likely to suffer significant harm”?
- The judge reached the conclusion that section 100(4)(b) CA 1989 was not satisfied; in his judgment, the giving to the babies of the names contemplated by the mother did not give the court “reasonable cause to believe that if the court’s inherent jurisdiction is not exercised” they would suffer significant harm. Further, the judge appeared to be of the view that a single issue relating to the naming of a child, is not, without more, capable of satisfying the section 31 CA 1989 threshold criteria. With respect I disagree; in my judgment, although it will only rarely be the case, the giving of a particular name to a child can give a court reasonable cause to believe that, absent its intervention, the child in question is likely to suffer significant emotional harm. In my judgment this is one such case and there is every reason to believe that if the court’s inherent jurisdiction is not invoked in order to prevent the girl child from being named ‘”Cyanide”, she is likely to suffer significant harm.
- In my judgment, the local authority took the correct procedural route when they made an application under section 100 CA 1989 seeking ” the intervention of the High Court in order to exercise its powers pursuant to section 100 Children Act (CA) 1989 and/or its Inherent Jurisdiction” (sic).
The significant harm issue is obviously tricky. The Court were satisfied here that the choice of the name “Cyanide” was such that would cause the child significant harm.
Let’s look at the mother’s reasoning
“6. I confirm that I believe it is my right to name the children the names that I have chosen as their mother and I believe it is my human right to exercise my right to choose their names and register my children’s names without the interference of the local authority.
7. I confirm that I have chosen Preacher for my boy child as it is a strong spiritual name. It is a name that suggests proclamation and advocacy and being able to communicate with a wide community.
8. I also consider that Preacher is a rather cool name which will stand my son well for the future and I do not consider that it will impact on his development, emotionally, physically or mentally.
9. I confirm that I have chosen the name Cyanide as I believe that it is a lovely pretty name.
10. I further confirm that the name is linked with flowers and plants, that elderberry, hydrangea, cherry laurel and roses all have compounds of Cyanide found in the leaves and the fruits.
11. I believe that Cyanide will be a strong name that will stand my daughter well for the future and that I believe that it is a poison that has been used since the ancient Egyptians and it is derived from the Greek meaning dark blue.
12. I also consider that Cyanide was responsible for killing Hitler and Goebbels and I consider that this was a good thing and therefore Cyanide can be considered as a positive name, reflecting positive action that destroyed very bad people in the war.
13. I do not accept that it will have an adverse impact on my daughter during her formative years or later in her life.”
The Court of Appeal said this about names generally
What is in a name?
- One of the first questions asked by friends and relatives following the birth of a child is ‘what is the baby’s name?’ It may be thought that any individual who has had the happy experience of debating with his or her partner possible forenames for their unborn child would be astonished at the proposition that the choice of the name of their child could be regarded as other than their right as the child’s parents, and their first act of parental responsibility. The name given to a child ordinarily evolves over the months of the pregnancy through a bundle of cultural, familial and taste influences. The forename finally chosen forms a critical part of his or her evolving identity. The sharing of a forename with a parent or grandparent or bearing a forename which readily identifies a child as belonging to his or her particular religious or cultural background, can be a source of great pride to a child and give him or her an important sense of ‘belonging’ which will be invaluable throughout his or her life.
- If a baby cannot be brought up by his or her parents, often the forename given to him or her by their mother is the only lasting gift they have from her. It may be the first, and only, act of parental responsibility by his or her mother. It is likely, therefore, to be of infinite value to that child as part of his or her identity. That remains the case, even if the name used in his or her new family and thereafter throughout their lives, is different from that given to him or her by their birth mother.
- The naming of a child is not however merely a right or privilege, but also a responsibility; people, and particularly children, are capable of great unkindness and often are not accepting of the unusual or bizarre. It does not need expert evidence or academic research to appreciate that a name which attracts ridicule, teasing, bullying or embarrassment will have a deleterious effect on a child’s self-esteem and self-confidence with potentially long term consequences for him or her. The burden of such a name can also cause that child to feel considerable resentment towards the parent who inflicted it upon him or her.
- The judge recognised both the importance of a forename, and the fact that, ordinarily a choice of name for a child, even one which many would regard as outlandish, would not provide a reason for the interference by the state in private family life. The judge said:
- “A name is a direct link with the parent who chose the name……A name is also a badge of association, sometimes reflecting cultural identity, nationality, tribal heritage or religion. Above all a name is a gift a parent gives to a child, reflective of personal wishes and traditionally unconstrained in its choosing by legal restriction.
Notwithstanding the above it is not unknown to those working in the Family Court to encounter children whose parents have chosen to give them forenames which can most kindly be described as unusual, idiosyncratic or even eccentric bordering on the bizarre and more accurately be regarded as an act of parental selfishness or thoughtlessness and wholly lacking in consideration of the impact upon the child.
The choice of such names may well be reflective of a general failure to adopt a child centred approach to their responsibilities in meeting the child’s welfare but in my experience that choice of name has never been in of itself a reason for the involvement of the state in private family life.”
- The judge went on to consider how taste and perception can change and that a name which “is considered by a child to be an embarrassment at one age on account of it being different or unusual may well, as they get older and begin to assert their individuality, become a badge of pride for those very same reasons.”
- The judge correctly identified the important issue in the context of the care proceedings before him as being “the extent to which the local authority can or should exercise its shared responsibility in order to determine the name that a child in their care should be given…”.
In relation to the possibility of names being given which could be harmful, and “Cyanide” particularly :-
- I have reached the conclusion that there is a small category of cases where, notwithstanding the local authority’s powers under section 33(3)(b) CA 1989, the consequences of the exercise of a particular act of parental responsibility are so profound and have such an impact on either the child his or herself, and/or the Article 8 rights of those other parties who share parental responsibility with a local authority, that the matter must come before the court for its consideration and determination.
- It follows that I am also satisfied that there may be rare cases, where a local authority believes that the forename chosen by a parent, and by which he or she intends to register a child, goes beyond the unusual, bizarre, extreme or plain foolish, and instead gives the local authority reasonable cause to believe that by calling him or her that name he or she is likely to be caused significant harm. In those highly unusual circumstances, the proper route by which the local authority seek to ensure that the course it proposes is necessary and in the child’s interests is (as was held by Butler-Sloss LJ in Re D, L, and LA supra) by putting the matter before the High Court by way of an application to invoke its inherent jurisdiction.
- The judge at first instance found that, even allowing for changes in taste or “developing individual perception”, the name “Cyanide” was not “obviously indicative of a parent who is acting so as to contribute or otherwise secure the welfare of her children” and made the order sought preventing the mother from calling her Cyanide or registering her birth in that name. As already recorded, the judge reached that decision notwithstanding that he had held that the issue of the naming of the children was not, in itself, capable of satisfying a court that the child in question was likely to suffer significant harm.
- As set out at paragraph 103 above, I disagree with the judge’s conclusion as to availability of the court’s inherent jurisdiction, although not with the ultimate decision he made. For myself, I cannot (at present) envisage any circumstances in which an order preventing a parent from giving its child the forename of its choice could, or should, be made absent the court being satisfied that failure to intervene is likely to cause the child in question significant harm.
- 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:
- 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.
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”.
That left “Preacher” – it would seem to me that if there had only been one child that “Preacher” comes under the category of unusual or idiosyncratic names, but could not be said to actually be capable of causing the child harm. The children’s Guardian in this case urged the Court to prohibit “Cyanide” but allow “Preacher” (and I have to say that I tend to agree)
However, the Court of Appeal did not think that the Judge had been wrong to prohibit both names. In essence, they say that the female child, whatever she would be named, might later learn that her name was not given to her by her mother whilst her twin brother had got the name his mother had given him. As a result, she might find out (probably by googling “Boy named Preacher”) that her mother had wanted to call her Cyanide. The Court of Appeal felt that it would be better for both children to have names chosen by others, rather than one by their mother and one by the Local Authority
- In her written submissions, the Guardian submitted that the interference in the mother’s right to name her child was only necessary and proportionate in respect of calling the female baby “Cyanide”. Her argument was that the two names fell on either side of the ‘significant harm’ threshold – “Cyanide” on one side of the threshold – that of being harmful, and “Preacher” on the other – unusual, but not harmful.
- The local authority’s application under section 100 CA 1989 was made in respect of both children. The Guardian’s approach whilst understandable, arguably places the twins in conflict, with the boy child growing up with the name chosen by his birth mother whilst his twin does not.
- In the case of Birmingham City Council v H (No 2)  1 FLR 883, Balcombe J described the balancing exercise to be carried out where a conflict arose between the separate interests and welfare of two children in one application in the following way:
- “You start with an evenly balanced pair of scales. Of course, when you start to put into the scales the matters relevant to each child – and in particular those listed in s 1(3) – the result may come down in favour of the one rather than the other, but that is a balancing exercise which the court is well used to conducting in cases concerning children.”
At 899E – G, Evans LJ put the matter like this:
“But the welfare of the two individuals cannot both be ‘paramount’ in the ordinary and natural meaning of that word. If that is the requirement of s 1(1) in the circumstances, then the Act presents the court with an impossible task. For this reason, I agree with Balcombe LJ that the requirement must be regarded as qualified, in the cases where the welfare of more than one child is involved, by the need to have regard to potential detriment for one in the light of potential benefit for the other. Only in this way, as it seems to me, can the subsection be applied and the manifest objects of the Act achieved.”
- In my judgment the potential benefit to the boy twin in having a forename chosen by his mother is more than outweighed by the potential detriment to the girl child of them having forenames names given to them from two different sources – namely their mother on the one hand and their half siblings on the other.
- It is not unusual for a child, with even the most commonplace name, to ask how his or her name was chosen. This is made more likely in the case of an unusual name, such as “Preacher” and in circumstances where the children concerned are not living with their natural parents. The only possible response that his carers would be able to make in response to such a question, would be to tell the boy twin that it was the name that his birth mother had chosen for him. This would lead to the inevitable question from the girl twin as to whether her name had also been chosen for her by her mother and, if not why not? She would undoubtedly ask what name her mother had given to her and why it had been changed. The outcome of such a predictable conversation would be to expose the girl twin to a significant part of the very harm the court seeks to prevent; she would know not only that her mother had chosen to call her “Cyanide”, but also to have to come to terms with the fact that she was to have been named after a notorious poison, whilst her twin brother was to be given the name of a respected member of society, “Preacher”.
- I accept the Guardian’s basic submission that the name “Preacher” in itself would probably not have led a court to conclude that he would be likely to suffer significant harm if that was the forename he was given. However, upon carrying out the BCC v H balancing exercise, and having put into the scales the matters relevant to each child, I have reached the conclusion that the girl twin’s welfare can only met by neither she nor her brother having the names chosen for them by their mother. I am reinforced in this view by the fact that, whilst “Preacher” in itself might not be an objectionable name, there is considerable benefit for the boy twin to be in the same position as his sister and for them each to grow up knowing that their half siblings, with whom they live, chose both of their names for them.
- I would not therefore conclude that the judge had erred in deciding that it was not in the best interests of the boy twin to be called “Preacher” although for rather different reasons.
It would be a very exceptional case where this occurs – even more so if the choice of name was the ONLY matter which went to threshold. Such cases would have to go to the High Court for determination.
[I’m sure that all lawyers working in this field have a string of very unusual names that have been given to children within care proceedings. I’m fairly sure that by now, someone will have had a “Hashtag”. The test is much higher than just a whacky or idiosyncratic name, and into something which could be shown to be actually harmful ]