As Lord Mackay said in Dawson v Wearmouth  UKHL 18: “the name of a child is not a trivial matter but an important matter, and is not a question to be resolved without regard to the child’s welfare”.
For many reasons, children (or their parents) may wish to change their name.
To change the name of a child who is less than sixteen years of age, all those holding parental responsibility must consent unless there is a court order or special circumstances apply.
If a child is aged 16 or 17, their name cannot be changed without their consent.
If a child’s birth was registered in the past 12 months, the child’s first name can be changed if there is proof that the child was baptised under a different name, or a different name is regularly used in relation to the child. This can only be done once.
What is parental responsibility?
Parental responsibility is defined under section 3(1) of the Children Act 1989 as:
“all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his property”.
Having parental responsibility is not the same as being a parent. A child’s birth mother will always have parental responsibility for her child (unless the child has been adopted).
If a child’s parents are married or in a civil partnership with each other when the child is born, both of them automatically have parental responsibility.
If they are not married or in a civil partnership at the time of the child’s birth, the father of the child does not automatically have parental responsibility.
When a child is born by fertility treatment that may mean they have two female parents, the woman who carried the child is treated as the mother and automatically has parental responsibility. The second female parent is treated in a similar way as a father.
Section 43 of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 provides that if the two women consented in writing to the second female being the child's second parent, and the birth mother was not married nor in a civil partnership with another individual, the second female shall be treated as the second parent.
A divorce does not remove parental responsibility.
How to gain parental responsibility
A father can gain parental responsibility by:
Being registered on the child’s birth certificate.
Marrying the mother or entering into a civil partnership with her after the child has been born.
Entering into a parental responsibility agreement with the mother and filing it at the central family court.
Obtaining a court order giving him parental responsibility.
Being named on child arrangements order as the person the child is to live with.
Becoming the child’s guardian.
Adopting the child.
A step-parent can acquire parental responsibility if:
they are married to, or are the civil partner of, a parent of the child who has parental responsibility and they enter into a parental responsibility agreement with the parent(s) who have parental responsibility and file it with the central family court
they obtain a court order giving them parental responsibility or
they are names a person with whom the child is to live under a child arrangements order.
Individuals who are not the parents of children can also hold parental responsibility, including:
They are named as the person with whom the child should live under a child arrangements order.
They become the child’s guardian.
Local authorities can also share or hold parental responsibility for a child. A local authority has shared parental responsibility for a child who is the subject of a care order (including interim care orders).
When everyone with parental responsibility consents
When everyone with parental responsibility consents to the name change, an application generally should be made via deed poll. This is a legal document that proves a change of name. The application can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/change-name-deed-poll/change-a-childs-name.
There are some restrictions on name changes. The deed poll service will not accept an order for a change of name if:
· it is impossible to pronounce;
· it includes numbers or symbols;
· it includes punctuation marks (save for a hyphen and an apostrophe);
· it is considered vulgar, offensive, blasphemous or unsuitable;
· it may result in others believing you have conferred or inherited honour, title or rank;
· it is a trademark or copyrighted name e.g. Coca Cola; or
· it does not include at least one forename and one surname.
There is no legal limit on the length of a name, but the deed poll office does impose a limit of 300 characters (including spaces) for a full name. Other organisations have restrictions about what they show on documents they produce e.g. the limit for a passport is 30 characters each forename and surname and for the DVLA the limit is 30 characters in total for a full name.
Special circumstances: when a person with parental responsibility is absent from the child’s life
If it is impossible to get consent to a name change because a person with parental responsibility is absent from the child’s life, it is possible to apply via deed poll without consent of that person.
To do so there will need to be evidence that the whereabouts of that person are unknown and of the reasonable steps taken to establish contact.
When everyone with parental responsibility does not agree to a name change
If everyone with parental responsibility does not agree to a name change, an application can be made to the court for a specific issue order. Usually, such applications accompany other applications such as an application for a child arrangements order (an order that can set out who a child lives with, and the time they should spend with the other parent).
The applicant for a specific issues order to change a name would need to demonstrate that it would be in the child’s best interests for the order to be granted. A successful applicant can then proceed to change the child’s name via deed poll.
In cases concerning children, the child’s welfare is paramount. The court is required when considering any application concerning a child, to consider the welfare checklist in section 1(3) of the Children Act 1989. This includes: the wishes and feelings of the child, their physical, emotional and educational needs, the likely effect on the child of the change, their age, sex, background and any characteristics the court considers relevant and any harm which they have suffered or are at risk of suffering.
The key, as held in Re W (Children)  EWCA Civ 1488, is whether any change of a name is better for the child’s welfare than no change of name.
Sophia Stapleton is a barrister in chambers. Sophia has particular expertise in cases concerning children, including private and public law proceedings. To instruct Sophia, you can contact her clerks at email@example.com or by telephone on 020 7936 2613.