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High Court Considers Limits on the Right of Parents to Name Their Children

Parents have a right to name their children and, in modern Britain, the options open to them are almost limitless. However, as a High Court ruling showed, there are rare occasions when a parental choice of forename may conflict with a child's welfare.

The case concerned a deeply troubled mother whose son was placed in interim care soon after his birth. In the first few days of his life, the mother called him by a name commonly associated with boys. However, when she registered his birth, she gave him a name predominantly considered appropriate to girls.

The local authority caring for him applied to the Court for permission to change his registered name to that originally used by his mother. His registered name, the council contended, might have a negative impact on him as he grew up in that he would be exposed to bullying, ridicule and teasing by his peers.

Ruling on the case, the Court was not satisfied that the boy's registered name would expose him to significant emotional harm. In Britain's diverse society, parents choose a vast range of names for their children that are considered acceptable unless they are bizarre, extreme or just plain foolish. Societal views on gender are evolving at some pace and a name that a child may at first consider embarrassing may become a badge of pride in later life.

It was important to respect the choice made by the mother, whose right to respect for her family life was enshrined in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Unless her son were returned to her care in the future, choosing his name represented one of the few ways in which she could exercise her parental responsibility for him.

His father, however, asserted that he was excluded from involvement in his naming and the registration of his birth. The council's ultimate plan was to place him in the care of his paternal grandmother. Members of the paternal family strongly objected to his registered name and the Court noted that they might choose unilaterally to call him by another name. The registered name thus had the potential to cause intra-family conflict and confusion during his formative years.

Striking a balance, the Court ruled that, in the event that a final care order was made and the boy placed with his grandmother, the name originally used for him by his mother should be added to his birth certificate. The registered name that she had chosen for him would not be expunged from the certificate and would remain available to him should he wish to use it in later life. If he were not ultimately placed with his paternal family, there was no proper basis for the Court's intervention and the certificate would remain unaltered.

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