It seems to be a long-standing and fairly fundamental perception in English law that people may assume or use any name they so like. I’ve seen this discussed in House of Lords decisions, possibly also court of appeal ones, and it further came up last night in a discussion with an English person on the history of personal monikers in England and the proposition that all English surnames come from one of four origins (patronymic, locative, profession, personal characteristic).

In any event, what is the basis and/or rationale for that doctrine, and what are the particular terms of its functioning?

Has it changed and evolved over the centuries? What did it mean in the past? Was there an expectation that one maintained a consistent identity across all of the spheres and contexts in their life over any one period? Or could one assume one identity in their work, another at university, and then marry under yet another name? And maintain all of these identities simultaneously?

Or is it more to say that any time one wishes to change their moniker they are allowed to so long as they assume that new identity in all aspects of their life?

To what extent and how has that doctrine changed over the years, and did the domesday book play a pivotal role in the situation changing?

  • 3
    This is a rather broad complex of questions. Perhaps you should break it down into several.
    – Mary
    Feb 12, 2023 at 0:18

1 Answer 1


The common law is permissive

That is to say that, in a common law jurisdiction, the law is about what you must not do rather than about what you must do. Now, particular statutes may be phrased as requiring certain actions but, if you read them the “common law way” to coin a phrase, they are really imposing sanctions for doing the prohibited thing that falls outside those parameters.

Since there is no legal prohibition on using multiple names (simultaneously or sequentially) you are free to do so.

Now, there are common law prohibitions of, for example, fraud or tax evasion. So, if you use different names for the purpose of doing those prohibited things, then that is illegal but it is the specific criminality that is sanctioned, not the use of the alias in perpetrating it.

The UK has a law that makes it a crime to not register the birth of a child. It also imposes some (and by most country’s standards, very few) restrictions on the name a child can be registered under. But there is no legal obligation on the child or their parents to use the registered name in any particular circumstances. There may be difficulties (amounting to impossibility in some cases) in obtaining a passport, opening a bank account, or claiming social security under a non-registered name but that is due to the necessity to identify the individual for which the name serves as a proxy.

However, outside the requirements of specific statutes or administrative procedures, the common law position is that your name is what people call you and you identify as your name. The second part is important - I have been called dickhead on many occasions but I do not consider it to be my name.

The UK has a patronymic tradition for surnames so, usually, on marriage, the female adopts the surname of the male and that, through the marriage certificate, becomes her registered name. However, it is extremely common for women to continue to use their original (and now not registered) name in their professional life and her new name in her private life. This can be problematic. My wife, has on server all occasions been refused permission to board a plane because the ticket (booked by others) was in her maiden name - a name for which she has no official identification. However, that’s a procedural problem - she didn’t do anything illegal.

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