Is there no issue so straightforward that this government does not believe the best way to solve it is through the application of a sledgehammer? Judging by recent proposals, designed to resolve the easily containable problem of sex offenders evading detection, but likely, in fact, to penalise millions – mostly innocent women – and simultaneously over-turn a centuries old right, the answer has to be a thundering, thudding, “No!”
Late last year, the Safeguarding Alliance, a group that promotes best practice in safeguarding children, raised a troubling issue on the government’s petitions page. There was, they said, evidence that sex offenders were changing their names and not informing authorities when they did so.
They suggested it would be a good idea if the government revoked the automatic right of these people to change their name. Maybe a few more checks in the system? Departments liaising with one another, perhaps? Either of these things would go a long way to preventing sex offenders evading detection.
The government paused for all of two seconds before grabbing the sledgehammer. We shall “amend existing Home Office guidance, so that only enrolled deed polls (through the Royal Courts of Justice) are accepted as a proof of name change”. To that end, they have already set in motion a judicial working group – under minister for safeguarding Victoria Atkins – to consider the mechanism for making this work.
The implications of this, for most of the public, will be clear as mud. For the few of us involved in name-change policy for many years – I have the dubious honour of being described by a Cabinet Office committee investigating a range of identity-related issues as a “UK expert on the subject” – this set instant alarm bells ringing.
Why? Because it turns on its head centuries of English legal practice. Worse, it is potentially devastating for thousands of vulnerable people, from abuse victims to trans folk. It is also highly discriminatory.
Let’s start with a little history. In the UK – as the government acknowledges – there is no legal process required for changing one’s name. But what about deed polls, I hear you ask? What about all those police procedurals where some officer sagely notes that the villain changed their name “by deed poll”? What about the guy who, I kid you not, changed his name to Celine Dion by accident?
All true. All irrelevant. As much a part of legal fiction – or legal urban myth – as the idea that English judges wield gavels in court or must wear wigs. But it’s one of those things everyone knows, so it must be true, right? Except it isn’t. In some jurisdictions – Italy or most US states, for instance – name change is a serious process that must go before a court. In France, technically, a change of name must be signed off by the president of the Republic.
In the UK, however, you may accompany a name change with one of several documents: a deed poll; a statutory declaration; or a “declaration of truth”. But none of these are essential. Why? Because your name has always been what you commonly call yourself. And in the good old days, you could change your name on your bank account with a signature and a letter to your local bank manager.
Marriage and divorce certificates, by contrast, have not been considered proof of name change, though in more recent guidance, that has been changing.
What about fraud? Identity theft? These have been twin government obsessions since the early noughties, main drivers of the push towards official documentation of name change. The lack of such a process makes little difference, though. If you want to protect against deception, you need other measures: biometrics or unique identifiers of the sort that would be used in a national ID card scheme.
Besides, those obsessed with increased formality never quite explain why a simple signature suffices to transfer £10,000 from one account to another, but is not enough for changing one’s name.
If more documents do little to help, forcing folks to rely on the enrolled deed poll is truly retrograde. For, apart from the fact that you must pay a fee to use one (currently £42.44), it also results in details of your name change and home address being published – publicly.
Added to this, enrolled deed poll is one of just two processes in UK law where spousal consent is required (the other is gender recognition for trans people).
This is problematic. First, because if the government means what it says and only deed polls become proof of name change, then that is a lot of people – mostly women – who will need to get them. Over a million a year, if we just look at new marriages and divorces. Tens of millions if the requirement is made retrospective. And many institutions have done just that.
But then, too, there are the vulnerable categories. Those who have changed their names to escape abusive partners. Or to dissociate from abusive parents. Spousal consent? Publishing your new address? Really? Bad news, too, for trans people, for whom an enrolled deed poll is instant outing.
And for what? Changing your name for fraudulent purposes is already an offence. As is failure, if you are a sex offender, to inform police of name change. So the government, it seems, is now minded to introduce measures that will impose costs disproportionately on women who marry or divorce, wreak havoc on the lives of the vulnerable, and will have little impact on people already prepared to commit crime to evade detection.
Some sledgehammer, eh? So little a nut.