The sources from which names and surnames are derived are almost endless: nicknames, physical attri­butes, trades, heraldic charges and almost every ­object known to mankind.

Tracing a family tree in practice involves looking at lists of these names − this is how we recognise our ancestors. When communities were small, each person was identifiable by a single name, but as the population increased, it gradually became necessary to identify people further.

Traditionally, the surname and the family nickname were an instant way of recognition. A person would be able to deduce several things associated with a person’s surname.

In the past, any particular surname would imply that the bearer came from a particular location (e.g. Catania from Sicily and Genovese from Genoa). There are also some peculiar trends in Malta relating to location-specific surnames that are associated with certain towns or villages, such as the strong presence of Abela in Żejtun, Bugeja in Marsaxlokk and Busuttil in Safi.

Each surname has its own tale, and given that there are about 20,000 of them in Malta, there are lots of stories to go about. Certainly, our surnames are very indicative of our country’s multicultural history. Of course, this me­thod of recognition is not quite as accurate as it once was, given the drastic in­crease in international family names that have accumulated through recent ethnic intermarriages. Interestingly, the 2011 census found that 76 per cent of the population share the same 100 surnames.

Records show that the Public Registry started to record births in Malta from 1863. All the details about each individual is listed down in the birth certificate. This registry is kept up-to-date and well organised. Any correction of errors in the transcription of any entry must be done by means of a note in the margin of such entry and any cancellation made must leave the cancelled words clearly legible. The million-dollar question is: can a surname be changed?

This was discussed in a decision given by Mrs Justice Joanne Vella Cuschieri in the case of ‘Miriam Christine Borg pro et nomine vs Direttur tar-Reġistru Pubbliku’ decided on June 5.

The facts of the case were as follows: the plaintiff (a woman) was in a relationship with a man, from which a child was born. The parents chose that the child was to be registered under the father’s surname. The plaintiff stated that at that time she had genuinely thought she would eventually marry her child’s father and take up his surname. Like that, all the family would bear the same one surname.

If a change in the surname is easily permissible, this may affect and could prejudice third parties

Unfortunately, the relationship did not work out and each of the parents went their own way. Eventually, the plaintiff entered into a new relationship, got married and gave birth to another child, this time fathered by her husband. This (second) child was registered with a double-barrelled surname, taking both the plaintiff’s surname as well as her husband’s.

This created a bit of a situation. The plaintiff’s two children (half-siblings) ended up with a different surname (because they had a different father). There is nothing strange about this; indeed, today it is quite a common occurrence. The plaintiff, however, was not happy about this situation, and purportedly driven by her children’s best interests, filed a lawsuit against the Director of Public Registry, requesting the court to order a change in her first child’s surname, so that her first child would bear her surname too, together with the father’s surname. Like that, both children would have at least one common surname, together with their respective father’s surname. In this way there would be something to connect both siblings.

In his reply, the Director of Public Registry argued that since there was no error from any of the public servants employed within the Public Registry, it was at the court’s discretion to decide whether or not to accede to the plaintiff’s request.

During the proceedings, the mother explained that she had originally believed that she was going to marry the father of her first child and hence she had elected not to include her name in the child’s name. Of course, this changed once the relationship ended.

In its careful considerations, the court pointed out that the correction of a surname is – from a legal point of view − more problematic, in that it can only be done if it turns out that there was a genuine mistake. The Civil Court, First Hall reiterated that our courts’ decisions in this regard are consistent; and this due to the fact that if a change in the surname is easily permissible, this may affect and could prejudice third parties, since the latter would find it much harder to conduct an effective investigation on the person with whom they were contracting. As a result, surnames are not to be changed so easily.

In its judgment, the court went in great detail into the merits of the case. It pointed out that given the fact that the child was only three years of age, third parties would certainly not be affected. The court stated that it truly believed that the plaintiff committed a genuine mistake when she registered her child and this since she believed that she was going to marry the child’s father.

The court even went a step further in its considerations. It pointed out that our laws have always established that the best interest of the minor should always prevail and prio­ritised in any given circumstance. The court believed that if the plaintiff’s request had to be acceded to, and if the minor would subsequently have at least one common surname with her sibling, that child would be provided with a sense of certainty about her identity in the Maltese community as well as instil in her a sense of belonging in the family who is raising her.

Both parties to the suit may appeal from this judgment.

Graziella Cricchiola is a junior associate at Azzopardi, Borg & Abela Advocates.

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