Bastardy Proceedings

Bastardy Proceedings
Bastardy Proceedings
Full Overview Of Bastardy Proceedings

Bastardy proceedings, also known as affiliation proceedings, are legal actions initiated to establish the paternity of a child born out of wedlock and to obtain financial support from the alleged father. Although the term “bastardy” may seem outdated and somewhat negative, these proceedings have played a critical role in family law, ensuring that children receive the necessary support and care regardless of their parent’s marital status. This overview aims to explore the historical context, legal framework, procedural aspects, and contemporary relevance of bastardy proceedings.

Historical Context

Early History

The concept of bastardy proceedings dates back to medieval England, where the responsibility for the welfare of illegitimate children was often assumed by local parishes under the Poor Laws. The stigma attached to illegitimacy meant that unwed mothers and their children were frequently marginalised. To mitigate the financial burden on parishes and ensure that fathers contributed to the upbringing of their children, bastardy laws were enacted.

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834

One of the most significant developments in the history of bastardy proceedings was the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. This Act sought to reform the existing Poor Laws and introduce stricter regulations on handling bastardy cases. It aimed to reduce the financial burden on parishes by ensuring that fathers bore a fair share of the costs associated with raising their illegitimate children.

Under this Act, mothers could apply to the local magistrate for an affiliation order, which would compel the alleged father to provide financial support. If the magistrate found sufficient evidence to support the mother’s claim, an order would be made, and the father would be required to pay a weekly sum for the child’s maintenance.


Several pieces of legislation have shaped the framework of bastardy proceedings in the United Kingdom. Key among them are the Bastardy Acts of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which laid down the procedures for determining paternity and securing child maintenance. Over time, these laws have evolved to reflect changing societal attitudes towards illegitimacy and the rights of children and parents.

The Affiliation Proceedings Act 1957

The Affiliation Proceedings Act 1957 was a landmark piece of legislation that consolidated and updated the law relating to bastardy proceedings. It provided a more streamlined and accessible process for unwed mothers to seek financial support from the fathers of their children. The Act also introduced provisions for the enforcement of maintenance orders, ensuring that fathers who failed to comply with court orders could be held accountable.

The Family Law Reform Act 1969

The Family Law Reform Act of 1969 further modernised the legal framework for bastardy proceedings. One of the most significant changes brought about by this Act was the removal of the term “bastard” from legal terminology, reflecting a shift towards more inclusive and respectful language. The Act also established the principle that all children, regardless of their parents’ marital status, should have the same rights to financial support and inheritance.

The Child Support Act 1991

In more recent times, the Child Support Act 1991 has played a pivotal role in the enforcement of child maintenance obligations. This Act established the Child Support Agency (CSA), which was later replaced by the Child Maintenance Service (CMS). The CMS is responsible for calculating, collecting, and enforcing child maintenance payments, ensuring that children receive the financial support they need.

Procedural Aspects

Initiating Proceedings

Bastardy proceedings can be initiated by the mother of a child born out of wedlock. The process typically begins with the mother making an application to the local magistrates’ court. This application should include details about the alleged father and any evidence supporting the paternity claim. Evidence can include, but is not limited to, testimonies from witnesses, correspondence between the parties, and, in modern times, DNA test results.

Court Hearings

Once an application is submitted, the court will schedule a hearing to consider the evidence. Both the mother and the alleged father are given the opportunity to present their cases. If the alleged father denies paternity, the court may order a DNA test to establish biological parentage conclusively. DNA testing has become a crucial component of bastardy proceedings, providing a scientifically reliable method for determining paternity.

Affiliation Orders

If the court finds sufficient evidence to support the mother’s claim, it will issue an affiliation order. This order typically requires the father to make regular payments towards the child’s maintenance. The amount and frequency of these payments are determined based on various factors, including the father’s income and the child’s needs. In addition to financial support, the court may also order the father to contribute to other expenses, such as medical and educational costs.

Enforcement of Orders

Enforcement of affiliation orders is a critical aspect of bastardy proceedings. If a father fails to comply with a court order, various measures can be taken to ensure that payments are made. These measures include wage garnishment, asset seizure, and, in extreme cases, imprisonment for contempt of court. The involvement of the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) has streamlined the enforcement process, providing a more efficient mechanism for collecting and distributing child maintenance payments.

Contemporary Relevance

Changing Attitudes towards Illegitimacy

Over the years, societal attitudes towards illegitimacy have evolved significantly. The stigma once associated with being born out of wedlock has diminished, and there is now a greater emphasis on the rights and well-being of children, regardless of their parent’s marital status. This shift in perspective has influenced the legal framework governing bastardy proceedings, leading to more inclusive and equitable policies.

The Role of DNA Testing

The advent of DNA testing has revolutionised bastardy proceedings. Unlike the early days, when paternity was often determined based on circumstantial evidence and testimonies, DNA testing provides a highly accurate and reliable method for establishing biological parentage. This has not only streamlined the legal process but has also reduced the likelihood of wrongful paternity claims.

The Child Maintenance Service

The establishment of the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) has been a significant development in the administration of child maintenance. The CMS provides a structured and efficient system for calculating, collecting, and distributing maintenance payments. It also offers support and guidance to parents, helping them navigate the complexities of the legal process and ensuring that children receive the financial support they need.

International Considerations

In an increasingly globalised world, bastardy proceedings sometimes involve cross-border issues. When parents reside in different countries, establishing paternity and enforcing maintenance orders can become more complex. International agreements, such as the Hague Convention on the International Recovery of Child Support and Other Forms of Family Maintenance, play a crucial role in facilitating cooperation between countries and ensuring that maintenance obligations are upheld across borders.

Challenges and Criticisms

Legal and Procedural Hurdles

Despite the progress made in modernising bastardy proceedings, several challenges and criticisms persist. One common criticism is the complexity of the legal process, which can be daunting for unwed mothers seeking support. Navigating the procedural requirements, gathering evidence, and attending court hearings can be overwhelming, particularly for individuals with limited resources or legal knowledge.

Enforcement Issues

Enforcing maintenance orders remains a significant challenge. While the CMS has improved the collection and distribution of maintenance payments, there are still cases where fathers evade their financial responsibilities. Non-compliance with court orders can result in lengthy enforcement processes, causing financial hardship for mothers and children. Stricter enforcement measures and more efficient mechanisms for tracking and penalising non-compliant fathers are needed to address this issue effectively.

Social and Economic Factors

Bastardy proceedings often intersect with broader social and economic factors. Unwed mothers may face additional challenges, such as limited access to education, employment opportunities, and social support. These factors can exacerbate the financial and emotional strain on mothers and children, making it even more critical to ensure that fathers contribute their fair share to the upbringing of their children.


Bastardy proceedings have evolved significantly over the centuries, reflecting changes in societal attitudes, legal principles, and technological advancements. While the term “bastardy” itself may be outdated, the underlying objective of ensuring that children receive the necessary financial support from both parents remains as relevant as ever. The legal framework governing these proceedings has become more inclusive and equitable, with a greater emphasis on the rights and well-being of children.

However, challenges persist, particularly in enforcing maintenance orders and addressing the broader social and economic factors that impact unwed mothers and their children. Continued efforts to streamline the legal process, enhance enforcement mechanisms, and provide comprehensive support to families are essential to achieving the goals of bastardy proceedings.

As society continues to evolve, so must the legal and social frameworks supporting families. By prioritising the best interests of children and ensuring that both parents fulfil their responsibilities, we can create a more just and equitable system that promotes the well-being of all children, regardless of their parent’s marital status.

Bastardy Proceedings FAQ'S

Bastardy proceedings were historical legal actions used to establish the paternity of a child born out of wedlock and to obtain financial support from the father. These proceedings have been largely replaced by modern child support and paternity laws.

No, bastardy proceedings are no longer used in the UK. They have been replaced by more modern legal mechanisms for establishing paternity and securing child support, such as the Child Support Act 1991.

Paternity can be established voluntarily by the father’s acknowledgment or through a DNA test ordered by the court if paternity is disputed.

The Child Maintenance Service (CMS) is the primary agency for calculating, collecting, and enforcing child support payments in the UK.

Yes, a mother can apply for child maintenance, and the CMS or the court can order a DNA test to establish paternity if the father denies it.

If the alleged father refuses to take a DNA test ordered by the court, the court may assume paternity and order child maintenance accordingly.

There is no specific time limit for establishing paternity. However, it is beneficial to address paternity issues as soon as possible, especially for the purposes of child support and inheritance claims.

Yes, child support can be backdated to the date of the initial application for maintenance. The CMS or the court can order back payments to cover the period from the application date to the present.

Once paternity is established, the father has the right to seek parental responsibility, which includes the right to participate in decisions about the child’s upbringing, education, and welfare. He may also seek visitation or custody rights through the court.

Yes, a child born out of wedlock can inherit from their father if paternity is established. The child has the same inheritance rights as any child born within a marriage.


This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 11th July 2024.

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