A person’s legal name
Your legal name is the name you’re generally called and known by.
Lord Justice Ormrod, in the case of D v B (orse D)  Fam 38, in the Court of Appeal, held that —
It is common ground that a surname in common law is simply the name by which a person is generally known[.]
So generally speaking, the name on your official documents and records (e.g. work / school records, doctor’s records, National Insurance and tax records, bank account, driving licence) will be your legal name. The important thing is what name you’re called and known by.
If you change your name, it doesn’t matter in the end what kind of document (e.g. deed poll, marriage certificate) that you use as proof of the change of name — and in fact it’s possible (and perfectly legal) to change your name by “usage”, without any document at all.
If you’re known by more than one name
Sometimes it isn’t clear what someone’s legal name is because they’re known by more than one name on different documents.
Where there is doubt, or where many names are (or have been) used, names that have been used for formal, solemn, and official purposes — over a substantial period of time — have more weight than names that are used for temporary, social or day-to-day purposes.
And of course identity documents such as your driving licence and passport have more weight than other records (such as job or medical records).
What name you can be called (restrictions on names)
The law does not restrict —
- the name that a person may be called
- the names which the parents may give their child (including on the birth registration)
The law does not explicitly say that any name is possible, but the law makes no restrictions on what names are possible.
(In general, people in the U.K. can do anything which they haven’t been forbidden to do by law.)
Of course, some names would be illegal as indirect results of more general laws. So for example, any name containing racist language would be illegal under section 18 of the Public Order Act 1986.
Nevertheless, the courts have (many times) upheld a person’s common law right to take on any name they choose, at will, without needing permission from any authority, and without following any legal process — other than that they must use and become known by that name generally speaking.
It was held by the House of Lords in Cowley (Earl) v Cowley (Countess)  A.C. 450 that —
“Speaking generally, the law of this country allows any person to assume and use any name, provided its use is not calculated to deceive and to inflict pecuniary loss.”
Parts of your name
A legal name in the U.K. can be made up of —
- a first name — or “first names”, or “Christian name”, or “forenames”, or “given name”, or “proper name”
- a surname
- a title of nobility
There is no law requiring a person to have a surname in the U.K., even if most people do have a surname.
Neither is there any law requiring a person to have a first name. Although all births must be registered, the law does not require a first name to be given. But in practice a person will always have a name, owing to the fact that with our langauge and culture, all people get “called” a name of some kind. Hence that name — even if the person has taken it by “repute” — will meet the definition of their “legal name”.
A middle name is not a separate part of your name. Middle names are a part of your first name.
Of course, in day-to-day life we talk of “middle names”, being any name(s) after your first forename.
Legally speaking, your “first name” is in fact all your forenames together.
So, for example, if your full name were “John Fred SMITH” (your surname being “SMITH”), then your first name (in full) would be “John Fred”. Legally speaking, there is no such thing as a middle name, so you’d simply have a first name made up of two names (“John Fred”).
Suffixes such as —
— are not a separate part of your name either. If they are part of your legal name, they should normally be a part of your surname (at the end).
They can also just be something used informally or socially, in which case they do not form part of your legal name.
Post-nominal titles such as “VC” or “OBE” are not a part of your legal name. (See “Other titles” below.)
Titles of nobility
“Officially recognised” British titles are considered a part of a legal name in the U.K.
- all members of the House of Lords (including archbishops and bishops), their wives, and families
- baronets, holders of knighthoods, and their wives
- baronetesses and holders of damehoods
(Husbands of Dames of the Realm do not have titles. This, of course, is not fair. But the whole system of titles is hardly “fair”.)
Titles which are not considered part of your name are:
- the social titles Mr, Mrs, Miss, Ms, Mx, Master
- professional titles such as Doctor, Judge, Professor, MP, MEP, QC
- Justice of the Peace
- clerical titles, such as Reverend, Sister
- officers of the armed services (active or retired)
- honours and military decorations, such as OBE, VC
- Manorial titles (i.e. Lord of the Manor) and Scottish Lairds
- Scottish feudal baronies (if recognised by the Lord Lyon, or Burke’s Peerage)
- foreign titles of nobility
- engineers who hold the qualification Eur Ing (European Engineer)
Length of names
A forename, or surname, may be any length — from one letter upwards.
Accents and diacritical marks
A forename, or surname, may have any accents or diacritical marks.
However in practice, organisations will usually just ignore accents — or more precisely — transliterate the accented characters into non-accented characters.
For example, “é” (with an acute accent) will normally be transliterated to “e” (with no accent).
There is no restriction in law on what punctuation is allowed in a name.
However the only punctuation marks that are generally used and recognised, in practice, are —
- hyphens (“dashes”)
- full stops
If a person tries to use other punctuation marks, other people and organisations will usually just ignore them. So in practice, the name a person wants to be called and known by is limited by the willingness or ability of other people to actually call them by it.
Numerals in names (that is — 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9) are not forbidden by any law. However in practice, they will normally be spelt out by organisations.
For example “4” will be transliterad to “four”, and so on.
Cyrillic letters and other non-Latin letters
Non-Latin letters in names are not forbidden by any law. In fact, a person who is born in China, Japan, or Russia, for example may be given a name (at birth) containing non-Latin letters or characters — even if they are British by nationality.
However, non-Latin letters will be transliterated into Latin letters (A–Z) for use by people and organisations in the U.K. (or a new name given).
The transliterations used passports follow international conventions (including passports issued by China, Japan, and Russia).