Thursday 26 July 2012

Ombudsman finds GRO's restrictions 'unwarranted'

Following an investigation into public access to the registers for births, marriages and deaths, the Ombudsman has found that the restrictions imposed by the GRO are 'unwarranted'.

The investigation was prompted by a complaint from a local history researcher who had been refused access by the GRO to death registers from 1864 to 1900 for a district in Co Westmeath. He complained that, prior to the most recent legislation – the Civil Registration Act 2004 – he would have been given the kind of research access he needed.

In the course of her investigation, the Ombudsman interviewed or received submissions from several genealogy and historical groups including the Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations (CIGO) and the Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland (APGI). Most of the comments on this page were made by CIGO and APGI, and they are sure to strike a chord with family historians.

The Ombudsman made three key findings, which are outlined in her Hidden History? - The Law, the Archives and the General Register Office, which can be accessed here.

Inevitably, the report is largely 'legalese reporting', but my non-legal summary of the Introduction (which is as far as I dare venture, for fear of collapsing under the weight of the legal argument) would go like this:

1. The Civil Registration Act 2004 does not allow for the GRO or its constituent offices to provide direct access for researchers and others who wish to inspect the actual register books.

2. Under the National Archives Act 1986 people do have an existing legal right to inspect the registers for births, deaths and marriages – as held by the GRO – provided the records sought are at least 30 years old.

3. The failure of the GRO to allow for inspection, under the National Archives Act 1986, of the (over 30-year old) indexes and registers, 'amounts to an undesirable administrative practice and is contrary to fair or sound administration.'

She acknowledges that, at the time of the complaint, the GRO was unaware of any method of access other than that set out under section 61 of the Civil Registration Act.

So, in people-speak, we are allowed access to the registers but it's not the fault of the GRO that we haven't been allowed access because they didn't know any better.

She goes on to say:

'In my report I recommend that the GRO come together with the other bodies responsible for our archives to develop appropriate arrangements to facilitate public inspection of these records. I understand that much of the register material has already been converted into digital form which suggests that much of the work necessary to make the registration entries more easily available may have already been done.'

So let's see if that brings any movement.

Update: On its own, this report won't bring about any great change. The Ombudsman has little clout so she can't force any redress, nor can she force the GRO to provide access. However, the report does add extra weight to the campaign led by CIGO and APGI and will put more pressure on the GRO and its political masters.

See APGI statement 3 August 2012.