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Law

Name Change Processes

Historically, England and Wales have taken a laid-back approach to changing your name.

Your registered name is what is printed on your birth certificate. However, the basic legal position is that “your name is what you call yourself”. Your name can therefore legally be changed simply by using a new name, as long as:

  1. You have genuinely changed your name in good faith;
  2. You have publicly assumed your name; and
  3. You have no fraudulent reason for changing your name.

For example, changing your name to “Alan Sugar” and then attempting to access Lord Sugar’s bank accounts would be fraudulent and not in good faith.

Furthermore, there is no law in England and Wales that restricts the type of name that parents can legally give to their children. However, names that contain obscenities, numerals, misleading titles, or are impossible to pronounce are likely to be rejected by the Registering Officer.

This is unlike France where it is not permitted to give certain names to babies, and Italy, which passed a law requiring baby names to be “appropriately gendered” for the child.

These pages detail TransActual’s interpretation of the issues around name change. There’s information on the steps you need to take to change your name on the gov.uk website.

In the past, notifying organisations of a change of name could be as simple as, for example, sending a signed letter to a bank manager who would then update the person’s banking records. However, a shift occurred in the 2000’s when the government sought to clamp down on identity theft, fraud, and money laundering. The government introduced laws that placed the onus on banks and other financial institutions to stamp out these unlawful practices.

The response from the finance industry was to institute a variety of formal administrative procedures. In most cases, it is no longer sufficient to simply send a signed letter. Now, individuals must provide ‘”proof’” of ‘their legal’ name change by providing one of a number of documents. Examples of some accepted documents include:

  • A deed poll
  • An enrolled deed poll
  • A statutory declaration

Whereas a deed poll and statutory declaration could be handmade by the individual and need not be registered, an enrolled deed poll makes a permanent, public record of the individual’s personal details at the time of the enrolment:

  • A copy of the deed poll will be kept in the Enrolment Books of the Senior Courts of England & Wales, at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. After 5–10 years, the copy of the deed poll is taken to the National Archives at Kew in Surrey.
  • The individual’s old name, new name and home address will be published in the London Gazette. Any information contained in the London Gazette is open to review by members of the general public.

In 2010, this demand for documentation was largely restricted to private enterprise, mostly financial institutions. However, in the years since, and particularly since 2015, Government departments, such as HMRC and the Passport Office, have also insisted on proof of legal name through provision of these documents. The UK government website outlines further information on making a deed poll and enrolling them with the courts.

Many organisations are disproportionately affecting trans and non-binary individuals by imposing onerous requirements upon them to recognise their name. In addition to requiring formal documentation as proof of a legal name, at least one government organisation has requested evidence of a gender recognition certificate before recording a name change for a trans or non-binary individual.

It is anticipated that new guidance will be released shortly by the Equality and Human Rights Commission instructing teachers not to accept any name changes by pupils unless this has been endorsed by their parents.

As a general rule, where a child is able to give consent, they have the right to change their own name. A person with parental responsibility has no right to force a child to change or not to change their name.

There are exceptions to this if the child is subject to a specific court order which requires consent from everyone with parental responsibility.

Where a child is not deemed able to consent, then all persons with parental responsibility must consent to a change of name on their behalf. There is a presumption that young people aged 16 or 17 can consent to change their name, whereas the ability of children under 16 will need to be assessed on an individual basis. The court will consider the child’s age, maturity, intelligence, and the matter in question. The older the child is, the more likely they are to be considered able to consent.

Further information is detailed in our research paper on the legal process for changing the name of children and young people by clicking the ‘Name changes for children and young people’ at the bottom of this page.

Changing your legal name can also carry a financial burden. If an organisation is willing to accept an unenrolled deed poll, this can be made by the individual without incurring any costs. However, if a solicitor or notary is employed to witness a statutory declaration, the fee is £5, and it can be challenging for individuals to identify a solicitor or notary who is willing to provide this service.

If organisations require an enrolled deed poll, this is significantly more expensive at £42.44. This is the only method of name change that creates a public record of name change, and has increasingly become the most popular documentation requested by organisations.

The most common reasons for name changing are through marriage or civil partnership and divorce, but other groups have common reasons for changing their name.

Marriage / civil partnership

There are approximately 225,000 marriages each year in England and Wales and a further 8,000 civil partnerships (ONS, 2020). In heterosexual relationships, convention dictates that a woman takes her husband’s name upon marriage. A 2016 study by YouGov found that the majority of women (59%) would still like to take their spouse’s surname upon marriage, and 61% of men still want them to do so. However, many women are instead choosing to retain their maiden name, double barrelling their surname, or creating a unique surname which both parties adopt.

In same-sex marriages and civil partnerships, as there is no convention for one party to take the other party’s name, these alternative options for name changing are popular.

Divorce

There are approximately 105,000 divorces each year in England and Wales and a further 650 same-sex civil partnership dissolutions (ONS, 2020).

Some divorcees choose to revert to their former name, whereas others do not.

Other groups

  • Survivors of abuse who change their name to escape or dissociate from abusive ex-partners or relatives.
  • Criminals who change name to avoid monitoring post release from prison.
  • Trans individuals who change name on or in advance of transition.
  • Non-binary individuals who change name to reflect their gender identity.

Name shortening and nicknames

Many individuals also make micro-changes to their name, without formally changing their name. This includes requesting that others call them by their second name, or shortening their first name from, say, from ‘Stephen’ to ‘Steve’.

For example, former Home Secretary ‘Suella’ Braverman was given the name ‘Sue-Ellen’ by her parents, but is known by ‘Suella’ instead. It is unknown whether she underwent any formal process before changing her name in this way.

Impact

In general, process changes disadvantage two specific groups, covered by the Equality Act 2010: women and transgender and non-binary people.

Changing the law through the backdoor

The result of these administrative requirements is a backdoor change to the law around name changing in England and Wales. The new requirements have not been approved by any Act of Parliament, but by a wholesale shift in administrative procedure.

Organisations are demanding formal documentation on the grounds of “security” before they will permit a change of name in their records. However, this appears to simply be an audit trail with extra administrative burdens. Meaningful security measures to protect against deception would need other measures, such as biometrics or unique identifiers of the sort that would be used in a national ID card scheme.

This is accompanied by a shift amongst the public whereby individuals are mistakenly led to believe that a deed poll is required to change a name ‘legally’ in England and Wales.

Risks for survivors of abuse

Domestic abuse will affect 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men in their lifetime. This leads to, on average, 2 women being murdered each week and 30 men per year (Living Without Abuse, 2023). LGBTQ+ people are nearly four times more likely than non-LGBTQ+ people to experience violent victimization, including rape, sexual assault, and aggravated or simple assault (UCLA School of Law, 2020).

The administrative hurdles that a person needs to overcome to change their name has a devastating effect on victims fleeing abuse. Many victims of economic abuse may be unable to pay the fee of £42.44 for the enrolled deed poll. Enrolling the name change also requires details of your old name, new name and home address to be published publicly and permanently stored.

Furthermore, an enrolled deed poll is one of two processes in England and Wales where an individual who is married or in a civil partnership must obtain the consent of their partner, which is unlikely to be forthcoming in an abusive relationship (the other is gender recognition of trans people).

Therefore, the law significantly hinders survivors of abuse from escaping and starting a new life.

Impact on transgender or non-binary individuals, especially children and young people

Trans and non-binary individuals are also negatively affected by the enrolled deed poll requirements.

An unforeseen and disturbing effect of an enrolled deed poll is to essentially “out” trans and non-binary individuals and allow their information, including their old name and address, to be viewed by the public. This is particularly concerning when children seek to change their name. This disregards the individual’s choice in disclosing their gender identity and has the potential to subject trans and non-binary individuals to personal attacks from transphobic individuals who could easily target trans and non-binary members of our community.

We have identified two areas where the superfluous requirement to produce “proof” of a name change can be challenged under the law.

Discrimination

The Equality Act 2010 is the law that protects you from discrimination and gives you the right to challenge it. There are nine “protected characteristics” in the Equality Act, including sex and gender reassignment. If you are treated unfairly because of your protected characteristic, this is unlawful discrimination.

Although the requirements for producing proof of a name apply to everyone, they result in a particular disadvantage for two key groups: women (as they are more likely to be survivors of abuse) and trans and non-binary people. This is indirect discrimination.

GDPR

Data protection is regulated under the General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”). The GDPR says that personal data shall be accurate and, where necessary, kept up to date. Every reasonable step must be taken to ensure that personal data that is inaccurate is rectified without delay.

Although there is no definition for the term “accuracy”, the UK Data Protection Act 2018 states that personal data is inaccurate if it is incorrect or misleading as to any matter of fact. An organisation can only refuse to comply with a request if it is manifestly unfounded or excessive.

If an individual has genuinely changed their name and publicly assumed their new name, then an organisation handling that individual’s personal data has a duty to update the individual’s records so that the personal data they hold is accurate.

Therefore, if an organisation refuses to update their records to include an individual’s new legal name, they could be in breach of their obligations under the GDPR.

Further reading

Office of National Statistics: Baby names with special characters

Baby name law in France

Change your name by deed poll

Office of National Statistics: Marriage, cohabitation and civil partnerships data

Office of National Statistics: Divorce

Office of National Statistics: Civil partnerships in England and Wales 2020 briefing

These pages summarise general legal information relating to the rights of transgender and/or non-binary individuals under the law in England and Wales. It is not intended to give specific legal advice on which you should rely. If you require legal advice, or further details on any matter referred to, please consult an independent legal professional.

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