The following post was written by Paul Eichmüller (Vienna).
Although rules concerning the use of a name of natural persons have been liberalised in the member states of the European Union to a large extent after the CJEU’s famous decisions in C-148/02, Garcia Avello, and C-535/06, Grunkin and Paul, there still remain areas where national name law remains untouched. The Austrian Supreme Court has shown in its latest decision from 20 April 2021 that even for citizens of two member states, the conflict of laws rules for name matters may not generally be affected by CJEU judicature.
The parties of the case in question were the unmarried German mother and the Italian father of a son with German-Italian dual citizenship. After the child had been born in Germany – where he acquired his mother’s surname, as is usual under German law if the parents are unmarried – the boy and his mother moved to Austria. There, the father brought a request in court to change the child’s surname to a compound name consisting of both the mother’s and the father’s surnames. The mother, however, wanted her son to retain his current surname.
The Austrian courts of first and second instance concordantly dismissed the father’s request to change the child’s surname. Under Austrian law, the law applicable to name disputes follows the personal statute, which in turn is determined by a person’s citizenship (§§ 13, 9 IPRG). In cases of dual nationality – neither nationality being Austrian – the “effective nationality” (i.e. the nationality of the state to which the person has the closest link) determines the personal statute (§ 9(1) sentence 3 IPRG).
The courts concluded that the link to Germany had in this case been stronger, as the boy had been born in Germany and lived in a household with his German mother. German law, which accepts the renvoi (Article 10(1) EGBGB), does not provide for a change of the child’s surname against the will of the other parent unless the well-being of the child is affected, so that the request was denied.
The Decision by the Austrian Supreme Court
The Austrian Supreme Court upheld the lower courts’ decisions. It found no fault in how the previous instances had determined the applicable law. More importantly, it also ruled that this outcome was compatible with the CJEU’s rulings on European name disputes. According to the CJEU in Garcia Avello and Grunkin and Paul, Articles 18 and 20 TFEU merely require that EU citizens that lawfully use a name in one member state are allowed to use this name also in other member states. However, in the present case, the child in the case at hand had precisely not yet acquired a different name in Italy. Additionally, the father even conceded that under Italian law, a child may alternatively bear the surname of one parent or a compound name of both parents’ surnames. Thus, there were no objections from a perspective of European law, as neither freedom of movement was restricted nor was there discrimination on the basis of citizenship, and the request was dismissed.
Without explicitly stating it, the Austrian Supreme Court made one point very clear in its judgment: the EU fundamental freedoms as interpreted by the CJEU in Garcia Avello and Grunkin and Paul do not impose on the member states the duty to determine the law on name disputes in a different way. Only the recognition of legal facts or acts from other member states, but not the identification of the applicable law is affected by the freedoms.
EU primary law requires that a name legally borne or acquired in another member state may also be borne in all other member states. It does, however, not impose a specific conflict-of-laws rule. Therefore, the law that determines whether and under which circumstances the name (even of a dual citizen) can be changed in another member state is not affected.
As the desired name is not legally borne in the other state, it remains merely hypothetical and thus is not subject to the fundamental freedoms. Whether the father could have changed his son’s name without the consent of the mother under Italian law was therefore not even assessed by the Supreme Court, as it deemed it not of importance.
As conflicts issues with regard to the change of name are concerned, each state is thus free to apply its own national rules of private international law. However, as most states offer the possibility to apply for a name change in their home state anyway, this issue will mainly arise in parental disputes. Like in the case at hand, one parent may wish to change the name of a child living in a different country against the will of the other parent and thus might bring an action in the family court at the child’s habitual residence pursuant to Article 8 of the Brussels II bis Regulation. When posed with the question of whether a change of name is possible, this court can then – free from obligations of EU primary law – assess the possibility of the name change according to its very own (private international) law.