What’s in a name? Spain’s great faith in public servants

Like most civil services, Spain’s bureaucracy wants to bring order to the world and everything in it. But while in other places they seek to do this simply with laws and regulations, Spain adds a wild card to the mix: it gives public servants discretionary powers whenever possible.


Basically, in Spain, you find many cases when things just come down to the public servant’s discretion. You imagine, in the name of accountability and good order, that the public servant in question will apply some explicit and sensible criteria, but that’s just speculation and good faith on your part. Guidelines are usually nowhere to be found.

There appears to be a tendency in the system to give the public servant unnecessary powers.

Take, for instance, the change made to the law a couple of years ago that allowed parents to choose the order of their child’s surnames. While traditionally the father’s surname had to come first and take the most important position in the double surname used in Spain, this amendment meant parents could instead put the mother’s surname first.

When proposed, this change sparked a lot of debate. It wasn’t controversial, but everyone wanted to talk about it. And so the finer points were stumbled across as the debate progressed.

What would happen, people asked, when the parents didn’t nominate the order or couldn’t agree on it? Under the principle of equality that motivated the law, you could no longer put the father’s name first by default.

The original proposal for solving this problem was for the first surname to be chosen alphabetically. But then people realised that, as you normally only pass on your first surname to your children, this would favour the extinction of rarer names coming towards the end of the alphabet.

Then there was the most logical solution — apparently applied in Germany when parents don’t, won’t or can’t specify a surname: choose it at random from the parents’ surnames.

This had to be the winner. I even sensed a sort of consensus in the media.

But no, without even having appeared in the preceding debate, another option was chosen for the definitive version of the amendment. As the law stands now, the registrar chooses which surname comes first if the parents can’t agree or aren’t around to do so.

So, we throw another piece of responsibility the public servant’s way when there really was no need.

And what criteria should the public servants follow to decide the order? Who knows? At least they’re not mentioned in the amended legislation (found here).

This is a good example of the bias of the system: when in doubt, let the public servant decide.

But really, what does it matter which last name comes first? Not much, probably, which is why I would have left it to chance, like they do in Germany.

But, in practice, how do registrars decide which surname comes first? Maybe they flip a coin. Or maybe they apply some other criterion: tradition, equality, name uniqueness or even name origin.

Given the current climate, for instance, political beliefs could sway the registrar towards choosing a regional surname (e.g., a Catalan or Basque name) over a typically Spanish sounding one or vice versa.

So while you can be pretty sure the objectives for the law change did not include giving the public servant a chance to impose their political bias (either individually or following an organisational culture or explicit orders, which could happen at the local level), it baffles why such an opaque responsibility has been handed out.

It baffles, but I’d argue it’s the culture of the system in Spain. Seen from this perspective, it makes perfect sense. How could you expect any other solution?

Written by Rob

Rob Lunn is a freelance legal translator based in Spain. He translates from Spanish and Catalan into English.

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