An interesting family law case published on 4 February looks at “declarations of parentage” and instances where the family court make them — and invite the General Register Office to alter birth certificates.

This case may be of interest to adult adoptees currently campaigning for the right to alter their own birth certificates.

The case involved a woman named Ruth who discovered when she was 15 years old that her mother’s husband was not her real father. The mother, who was Jewish, had become pregnant by an Irish man who was Catholic when she was 18, but he did not want to marry her.

These developments took place from 1959 onwards, at a time when having children out of marriage was seen as taboo and single mothers were forced to give their children up for adoption. So the mother found a man willing to marry her quickly and stand in as Ruth’s father.

The mother told Judge Mostyn in court that her husband had been abusive and unfaithful during the marriage.

The case centred around Ruth’s application to amend her birth certificate so that she could swap her step-father’s name for her biological father’s name.

The family court does not have any power to force the Registrar-General for Births and Deaths to change the certificate, so Mostyn approves a declaration of parentage and asks the registrar to consider the order. This is what Section 55A(4)(b) of the Family Law Act 1986 says:

55A Declarations of parentage

(1)Subject to the following provisions of this section, any person may apply to the High Court [F2or the family court] for a declaration as to whether or not a person named in the application is or was the parent of another person so named.

(2)A court shall have jurisdiction to entertain an application under subsection (1) above if, and only if, either of the persons named in it for the purposes of that subsection—

(a)is domiciled in England and Wales on the date of the application, or

(b)has been habitually resident in England and Wales throughout the period of one year ending with that date, or

(c)died before that date and either—

(i)was at death domiciled in England and Wales, or

(ii)had been habitually resident in England and Wales throughout the period of one year ending with the date of death.

(3)Except in a case falling within subsection (4) below, the court shall refuse to hear an application under subsection (1) above unless it considers that the applicant has a sufficient personal interest in the determination of the application (but this is subject to section 27 of the M1Child Support Act 1991).

(4)The excepted cases are where the declaration sought is as to whether or not—

(a)the applicant is the parent of a named person;

(b)a named person is the parent of the applicant; or

(c)a named person is the other parent of a named child of the applicant.

(5)Where an application under subsection (1) above is made and one of the persons named in it for the purposes of that subsection is a child, the court may refuse to hear the application if it considers that the determination of the application would not be in the best interests of the child.

(6)Where a court refuses to hear an application under subsection (1) above it may order that the applicant may not apply again for the same declaration without leave of the court.

(7)Where a declaration is made by a court on an application under subsection (1) above, the prescribed officer of the court shall notify the Registrar General, in such a manner and within such period as may be prescribed, of the making of that declaration.]

Mostyn also adds that it wouldn’t be against public policy to alter the certificate and would in fact be against public policy not to make the change.

There is a very good outline of the judgment on LexisNexis for subscribers, which opens with this summary:

“The Family Court made the declaration of parentage sought by the applicant (R), namely that P, who had died more than 13 years ago, was her father. The court held that the evidence amply satisfied the court that it was far more likely than not that P was R’s true father. Moreover, there was no reason why it would be manifestly contrary to public policy to make the declaration sought. If anything, it would be manifestly contrary to public policy if the court were to refuse to make the declaration sought.”

It is worth reading the judgment in full — which Mostyn has published with all the real names of the people involved — to get all of the nuances in the case. The judgment can be read for free on BAILII.