Change of gender in private international law: a problem arises between Scotland and England

Written by Professor Eric Clive

The Secretary of State for Scotland, a Minister of the United Kingdom government, has made an order under section 35 of the Scotland Act 1998 blocking Royal Assent to the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill 2022, a Bill passed by the Scottish Parliament by a large majority. The Scottish government has challenged the order by means of a petition for judicial review. The case is constitutionally important and may well go to the United Kingdom Supreme court. It also raises interesting questions of private international law.

At present the rules on obtaining a gender recognition certificate, which has the effect of changing the applicant’s legal gender, are more or less the same in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Scottish Bill would replace the rules for Scotland by less restrictive, de-medicalised rules. An unfortunate side effect is that Scottish certificates would no longer have automatic effect by statute in other parts of the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom government could remedy this by legislation but there is no indication that it intends to do so. Its position is that it does not like the Scottish Bill.

One of the reasons given by the Secretary of State for making the order is that having two different systems for issuing gender recognition certificates within the United Kingdom would cause serious problems. A person, he assumes, might be legally of one gender in England and another in Scotland. There would therefore be difficulties for some organisations operating at United Kingdom level – for example, in the fields of tax, benefits and pensions. This immediately strikes a private lawyer as odd. Scotland and England have had different systems in the law of persons for centuries – in the laws on marriage, divorce, legitimacy, incapacity and other matters of personal status – and they have not given rise to serious problems. This is because the rules of private international law, even in the absence of statutory provision, did not allow them to.

In a paper on Recognition in England of change of gender in Scotland: a note on private international law aspects[1] I suggest that gender is a personal status, that there is authority for a general rule that a personal status validly acquired in one country will, subject to a few qualifications, be recognised in others and that there is no reason why this rule should not apply to a change of gender under the new Scottish rules.

The general rule is referred to at international level. In article 10 of its Resolution of September 2021 on Human Rights and Private International Law, the Institute of International Law says that:

Respect for the rights to family and private life requires the recognition of personal status established in a foreign State, provided that the person concerned has had a sufficient connection with the State of origin … as well as with the State whose law has been applied, and that there is no manifest violation of the international public policy of the requested State ….

So far as the laws of England and Scotland are concerned, there are authoritative decisions and dicta which clearly support such a general rule. Cases can be found in relation to marriage, divorce, nullity of marriage, legitimacy and legitimation. A significant feature is that the judges have often reasoned from status to particular rules. It cannot be said that there are just isolated rules for particular life events. And the rules were developed at common law, before there were any statutory provisions on the subject.

Possible exceptions to the general rule – public policy, no sufficient connection, contrary statutory provision, impediment going to a matter of substance rather than procedure – are likely to be of little if any practical importance in relation to the recognition in England of changes of gender established under the proposed new Scottish rules.

If the above arguments are sound then a major part of the Secretary of State’s reasons for blocking the Scottish Bill falls away. There would be no significant problem of people being legally male in Scotland but legally female in England, just as there is no significant problem of people being legally married in Scotland but unmarried in England. Private international law would handle the dual system, as it has handled other dual systems in the past. Whether the Supreme Court will get an opportunity to consider the private international law aspects of the case remains to be seen: both sides have other arguments. It would be extremely interesting if it did.

From the point of view of private international law, it would be a pity if the Secretary of State’s blocking order were allowed to stand. The rules in the Scottish Bill are more principled than those in the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which contains the existing law. The Scottish Bill has rational rules on sufficient connection (essentially birth registered in Scotland or ordinary residence in Scotland). The 2004 Act has none. The Scottish Bill has a provision on the recognition of changes of gender under the laws of other parts of the United Kingdom which is drafted in readily understandable form. The corresponding provisions in the 2004 Act are over-specific and opaque. The Scottish Bill has a rule on the recognition of overseas changes of gender which is in accordance with internationally recognised principles.

The 2004 Act has the reverse. It provides in section 21 that: A person’s gender is not to be regarded as having changed by reason only that it has changed under the law of a country or territory outside the United Kingdom. This is alleviated by provisions which allow those who have changed gender under the law of an approved overseas country to use a simpler procedure for obtaining a certificate under the Act but still seems, quite apart from any human rights aspects, to be unfriendly, insular and likely to produce avoidable difficulties for individuals.


[1] Clive, Eric, Recognition in England of change of gender in Scotland: A note on private international law aspects (May 30, 2023). Edinburgh School of Law Research Paper No. 2023/06, Available at SSRN: or