It is in the news that a council was denied their request to force a DNA test on a child where there was a case of suspected intentional misattributed paternity. In criticising the family involved the judge said the family had "created a welfare minefield".

Rates of non-paternity events or misattributed paternity are studied, and estimates of rates vary from 0.8% to 30% with a median of 3.7%. The higher end of the scale is less believed these days, but was closer to conventional wisdom one or two decades ago. The problems this poses for genetic testing and clinical research have been recognised for a long time. In these discussions the potential harm considered is the impact on the individuals involved and their relationships. I have never heard of the problems it could cause to the welfare system, though even with the lower estimates it must deal with very many of these cases all the time.

What problem is the judge referring to here when he talks about a "welfare minefield"?

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    FWIW the truth is much closer to the low end estimate of 0.8%. The higher estimates are essentially all due to sample bias, from studies looking only at DNA tests done in cases where paternity was being actively disputed with the knowledge that a DNA test would determine the truth (which strongly discouraged frivolous paternity case filings). Low end estimates look at DNA tests of members of non-litigated family trees that deviate from what genealogy records would indicate over many generations.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 15 at 23:54
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    I've added an England and Wales tag, because the welfare law issues referenced in the article about which the judge is commenting and the question is asking for an explanation are particular to the welfare rules of England and Wales. These welfare rules would differ in countries with different welfare laws. Per Law.SE policy, it is still appropriate to discuss in an answer how the same situation would impact welfare laws in another jurisdiction. Some U.S. jurisdictions also disallow DNA testing when it would not be in the best interests of the child for a discrepant DNA result to be revealed.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 15 at 23:58

1 Answer 1


I could not find an official record of the court ruling referenced in the question until Lag provided a link in a comment.

Based on the news coverage, my guess was that the judge's reference to a "welfare minefield" in this context was about the child's emotional welfare (not about government benefit payments, the sense that Americans may first think of when hearing the word welfare).

Now that I have had a chance to look over the judgement, I think it is consistent with my first impression; it may also refer in part to how the situation complicates efforts of government actors, including the judge himself, to evaluate the welfare of the child. There are several references to the "welfare checklist" of §1 of the Children Act 1989.

The judge expressed feeling faced "with a 'minefield' in which there were potential harms to the children whatever decisions were taken" (§60).

It looks like the local authority became involved here because the child and his half-sibling were removed from the custody of their biological mother based on concerns about harm and neglect. The child and his half-sibling subsequently lived with the man named on the child's birth certificate as his father, under an interim child arrangements order. During the proceedings involving these children, the local authority became aware of the irregular circumstances of this child's conception and subsequently applied for a paternity test and declaration of parentage to be carried out.

Per the judgement, the birth mother and two potential biological fathers think that it is in the child's best interest, for the sake of his relationship with all three of them, to have the circumstances of his conception kept secret (§17), whereas the local authority proposed that the child has an interest in knowing his biological paternity (§21-22); among the evidence received by the court was a psychologist's report that warned that it may be more difficult for the child to learn this information at a later point in his life (§20), which of course might occur despite the parents' apparent current plans to keep it concealed from him forever (§67). These interests evidently conflict; even if we make a decision by weighing them against each other, it may be viewed as regrettable that this is necessary.

In other circumstances, "misattributed" paternity may theoretically be of financial interest to a government in cases where it holds parents responsible for financially supporting the care of their minor children: who is financially responsible then depends on which individuals are legally identified as the child's parents. A well-known case touching on that issue is that of Kansas sperm donor William Marotta. I haven't found a summary of the overall history of that case, but some background from 2015 in this article here: https://www.iflg.net/kansas-sperm-donors-liability-hinges-on-legal-technicality/ The article author Rich Vaughn opines:

In this case it seems the state has a bias to identify a parent who will be financially responsible for the child—regardless of whether any of the parties ever intended that parent to incur that responsibility.

And here is a slightly more recent news article from 2016: https://www.cjonline.com/story/news/crime/2016/11/28/shawnee-county-judge-topeka-sperm-donor-william-marotta-not-legally-child-s-father/16565815007/

But I doubt cases of this type have any more than a negligible impact on government finances.

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    Here is the judgment bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2024/305.html. I think you are right, it is about the child's welfare not the welfare as in tax and benefits system
    – Lag
    Feb 16 at 7:17
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    @Lag Good catch. The language of the opinion does make clear that it is about the child's well-being sense of the word "welfare" (what U.S. lawyers would call a "best interests of the child" analysis), rather than a welfare payment sense of the word. Indeed, the lack of an economic interest on the part of the government is a big part of the justification for the decision.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 16 at 9:27

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