Surnames reflect family heritage and most people view them as an essential part of their identities as human beings. A family judge made that point in choosing a new double-barrelled surname for a little girl so that she would no longer bear a nominal connection to the stepfather who was alleged to have caused her harm.
The girl, aged nine, was taken into care after suffering significant harm and neglect whilst in the care of her mother and stepfather. The latter was incorrectly identified as her father on her birth certificate and she bore his surname although she was not related to him. After the stepfather’s parental responsibility for her was terminated, the local authority that bore responsibility for her care applied to the judge for permission to change her surname.
She had for five years lived in the secure, loving and happy home of a foster carer who wished to look after her in the long term and had not ruled out the possibility of adopting her. Her biological father had recently been identified and had shown commitment to building up a father-daughter relationship with her.
The local authority, the foster carer, the girl’s guardian, her father and the girl herself were unanimous that she should no longer bear the surname of the stepfather. The judge was, however, faced with an acute dilemma in that each of them had expressed varying views as to what her new surname should be.
Ruling on the matter, the judge emphasised that the girl’s welfare was the paramount consideration. She felt very much part of her foster carer’s family and had expressed her preference to bear her surname. Given her youth, however, her wishes and feelings, whilst important, were not decisive. There was no guarantee that she would continue to live as part of the foster carer’s family until she reached adulthood.
The father had shown commendable commitment to his daughter and the judge ruled that he should have parental responsibility for her. However, she had yet to spend time with him or get to know him. She had lived with her mother for the first four years of her life and, although she had suffered harm and neglect in her mother’s care, there were advantages in maintaining her nominal link to her birth family.
The judge ruled that the girl should bear a double-barrelled surname, the first part of which would be the foster carer’s surname and the second part the mother’s surname. Her new name would reflect both her roots and the reality of her current family situation. It would provide her with flexibility as she grew up – she could use either or both parts of the name as she wished – and would be more future-proof.
The judge emphasised that the father should not see his daughter’s new surname as marginalising his role. He had made a good start in forming a relationship with her and his success in doing so depended not on a name but on his commitment as a father. She was likely to benefit in future from getting to know him and his large family.