Business Names: Is there anything which I need to be aware of when choosing a name for my business?  

What is meant by a business name?

A business name is a name which is used by any person, partnership or a company for carrying on business.

Does this include my own name?

The use of a name for a business which is the same as the own name of that individual will not fall within the legal definition of a business name.

Do I need to do anything before choosing a name for my business?

Often it would be a good course of action to consult a solicitor before deciding on a specific business name. Many people also feel it desirable to consult phone books to see if any businesses are already using that name. If your business operates in a specific field it may also be advisable to check any trade journals or magazines which apply to that field as this will provide a good indicator as to whether anyone else is using that name.

Does it matter if anyone else is using the same name?

It is always good practice to establish whether any other company is using the same name or a similar name to the one which you wish to use for your business. If you do use the same name you could run into legal difficulties as you may be infringing rights that the other company has – for example many companies register their name as a trademark.

Is there any legislation which covers business names?

In England and Wales all the requirements in relation to the choosing and registering of business names is covered by the Business Names Act 1985.

Who does the act apply to?

The Business Names Act 1985 applies to the following entities:

  • A company which trades under a name which is not its corporate name, for example if a company called Fernhill Limited trades as Queens Furniture

  • a partnership that does not trade under the names of all of the partners

  • An individual who trades under a name that is not his or her surname

What is the case if I add my surname into the name of my business?

If you simply trade as your name, for example H Smith then the name would not fall within the scope of the Business Names Act. If your surname is used as part of the business name for example H Smith Greengrocers then the Business Names Act would apply.

Are there any names which I am prohibited to use as a name for my business?

Any business is free to use its own name – i.e. the individual name of the person setting up or in control of the business.

List of Prohibited Names

There is in fact a list of prohibited names under the Business Names Act 1985 a copy of which can be obtained from the Department of Trade and Industry or from Companies House.

What names are included under this list?

The purpose of the list is to prevent business from claiming to be or giving the impression to the public that they are connected with royalty or the Government.

What does the Act say in relation to internet domain names?

There is no mention of internet domain names in the Business Names Act 1985 as the legislation predates the internet. However, it is widely thought that as a domain name is a trade name then the act will apply to the same extent as it would to any other trade name.

Permission from the Secretary of State

Certain business names which include words or expressions that are prescribed by regulation require the approval from the Secretary of State under the Business Names Act 1985 before they can be used

Appendixes A, B and C of the Business Names Act 1985 provide a list of the names which require the approval of the Secretary of State prior to use.

In order to apply for approval in order to use a business name you must contact Companies House.

What are the requirements under the Business Names Act?

Rules of disclosure

For any company which the Business Names Act applies to, they must comply with the rules of disclosure under the Act. Each business must therefore disclose the following things, where appropriate for your individual business:

  • The corporate name of the business, or

  • The name of each partner, or

  • The individual person’s name, and

  • In relation to each person who has been named, an address to which documents may be served

Where must I provide this information?

The above information must be clearly shown in all of the following places:

  • All places where you carry on your business including places where you deal with customers or suppliers

  • Business letterheads

  • Written orders for the supply of goods or services

  • Invoices and receipts

  • Written demands for the payment of business debts 

Can this information be handwritten?

The information can be handwritten or printed – the only issue is to make sure that it is clearly legible.

What happens if I do not comply with the requirements under the Business Names Act?

If you do not seek approval for the use of a name for which approval is required then you will have committed a criminal offence under the Business Names Act 1985.

If you do not comply with the requirements of disclosure under the Business Names Act 1985 you will also have committed a criminal offence.

If you do not make you business details available in the manner prescribed above then you may be unable to enforce a contract which your business has entered into.

Is there anything else which I should be aware of?

Under the Business Names Act 1985 there are no provisions in relation to policing whether individual companies are complying with the requirements under the Act. Consequently the Department of Trade and Industry will only take action against a company not complying with the legislation when the non-compliance is brought to their attention.

Article written by...
Lucy Trevelyan LLB
Lucy Trevelyan LLB

Lucy on LinkedIn

Lucy graduated in law from the University of Greenwich, and is also an NCTJ trained journalist. A legal writer and editor with over 20 years' experience writing about the law.