I was reminded of the case of C (Children)  EWCA Civ 374 at a recent court hearing where the issue arose about the local authority’s duty to register the birth of a child who is subject to a care order. Hopefully that matter will be subject of some further guidance – my argument being that a failure by a parent to register a birth is an abnegation of parental responsibility, not an exercise of it and therefore the local authority ought to be allowed to register after the required 42 days without needing the court’s permission.
However the issue of what name a child should be registered with is of much greater significance and It is clear that any argument between parent and local authority must be subject to over sight by the court. But what gives the local authority the right to have an opinion in the first place? To answer this question requires an examination of what happened in C Children.
How far can the state interfere with a parents wish to register (or not) the birth and name of their baby?
The issue of registering a birth is interesting in the context of care proceedings as there appears to be a view in some quarters that registering a birth makes your baby the ‘property of the state’ and refusing to register means the local authority cannot issue care proceedings. This view has no substance, but of course that doesn’t prevent people from spreading it and believing it.
Registering the birth: the operation of the Birth and Deaths Registration Act 1953
The purpose of the BDRA 1953 is to create a document of public record evidencing all births and deaths in England and Wales. It determines what information is needed to register a child’s brith, who may provide that information and when they must do it. There is no absolute requirement to register a ‘name’ at the same time as the birth, but provision is made in section 13 BDRA 1953 for the registration of a forename following a delay of up to twelve months or for the alteration of a name during the same period of time:
Section 1(2) BDRA 1953 sets out who is qualified to provide the necessary information to the Registrar; these people are known as “qualified informants”: They are the father and mother, the occupier of the house where the child was born, any person present at the birth or any person having charge of the child. These ‘qualified informants’ have 42 days from the date of birth to register it
Section 4 BDRA 1953 provides that where, after the expiration of forty-two days, ‘the birth of the child has, owing to the default of the persons required to give information concerning it, not been registered…’, the Registrar can require any qualified informant to attend at a place appointed by the Registrar to give the required information and to sign the register in the presence of the registrar.
So it seems pretty clear from this that the act of registering a birth is an exercise of parental responsibility but is not restricted to actual parents; the focus here is on the proper registration of the birth so that the child can be recognised and identified in the society into which he is born. It is an administrative requirement, not an illustration of something special and particular for parents.
Naming your child – an issue of fundamental significance
if registering a child’s birth is rightly described as a mere administrative act, it is clear that the choice of name for a child is an act of a very different nature and quality and is likely to be of far more emotional importance to most parents. This exercise of parental responsibility should only be interfered with in exceptional circumstances. As was recognised in C Children at para 40:
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….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….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….
Facts of C Children 
So what happened in this case to justify the court refusing to allow a mother to name her children? This case involved a mother with serious mental health issues. She had a long standing diagnosis of a psychotic disorder and of schizophrenia of an “undifferentiated type with an underlying personality disorder”. She did not accept the diagnosis and thus would not accept any treatment but she was found to have capacity to give instructions in the care proceedings.
Her three elder children had been removed from her care. She then had twin children who were subject to ICOs shortly after birth. Their father was not known; the children were conceived after the mother was raped. She told the midwife she wanted to call the twins ‘Preacher’ and ‘Cyanide’. The local authority tried to persuade her against this but failed – the mother argued that it was a ‘lovely, pretty name’ and that because Hitler killed himself with cyanide, this was a positive connotation.
After some weeks of attempts to change the mother’s mind, the local authority first asked the court to exercise its inherent jurisdiction under s.100 Children Act 1989 to prevent the children being so named but the court did not agree that this was the right route. However, as registering a birth and naming a child were ‘aspects of parental responsibility’, they were actions of a parent which could be limited by the local authority under s.33(3)(b) Children Act 1989. The court then declared that the local authority were allowed to prevent the mother from registering the children with those names.
The mother appealed on the basis that that the judge was wrong in concluding that the naming of the child and the registration of the child’s birth were each an exercise of parental responsibility and that the judge erred in concluding that a local authority has power under section 33(3)(b) CA 1989 to determine that the mother should not register her children’s births with her chosen names. Therefore, it was her human right to choose their names and register them without the interference of the local authority.
The Court of Appeal rejected the mother’s grounds and agreed that the registration of the births and naming of children were acts of parental responsibility, but also that a court could, under its inherent jurisdiction intervene in these circumstances and that the appropriate statutory route was therefore s.100 Children Act 1989.
The first court had not been happy to consider use of the inherent jurisdiction because it did not consider that the test of significant harm was met but King LJ in the Court of Appeal held that some names – such as Cyanide – were so awful that they gave rise to reasonable cause to believe that any child given that name was likely to suffer significant emotional harm. The Court did not have the same objections to ‘Preacher’ but did not think it right for one child to be named by the mother and the other not, so agreed that this name should not be registered either.
Happily in October 2015 the twins moved permanently to live with the foster family caring for their two eldest half siblings live, who chose names that they would like their brother and sister to be called
The limits to what a parent may do to a child under heading of “parental responsibility”.
This case is a useful illustration of the fact that PR while very important and worthy of protection, is not a green light for a parent to do whatever they want. The Children Act defines “parental responsibility” 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.”
In Re H-B (Contact)  EWCA Civ 389, the then President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby P, quoted with approval the judgment of McFarlane LJ in Re W (Direct Contact)  EWCA Civ 999 at para 72: i:
I wish to emphasise this, parental responsibility is more, much more than a mere lawyer’s concept or a principle of law. It is a fundamentally important reflection of the realities of the human condition, of the very essence of the relationship of parent and child. Parental responsibility exists outside and anterior to the law. Parental responsibility involves duties owed by the parent not just to the court. First and foremost, and even more importantly, parental responsibility involves duties owed by each parent to the child.
The foundation of the exercise of PR is therefore those acts which contribute to or secure the welfare of the child. Refusing to register your child’s birth or giving a child a name that many others are likely to find offensive or ludicrous is an abnegation of PR, not an exercise of it and parents have no ‘right’ to do harm to their child.