In the February 2013 edition of this journal we wrote about the Commission’s birth registration project. This project is now finalised. Our report was delivered to the Attorney-General in July and tabled in Parliament on 12 November 2013.
The report was the result of 12 months’ work by the Commission’s community law reform team. During this time the Commission prepared a consultation paper and visited rural and regional Victoria undertaking 33 face-to-face consultations, as well as receiving 13 written submissions. We talked to Indigenous people, people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds, young parents, maternal child health nurses and staff of the Victorian Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, among others.
The Commission’s report examines birth registration and considers whether current Victorian laws and practices are efficient, effective and accessible to all members of the community, particularly Indigenous people, those of CALD backgrounds, and the disadvantaged.
Birth registration and birth certificates are fundamental to effective functioning in society. While most people are able to register the births of their children in a straightforward manner, for those who cannot there are serious implications. Without a birth certificate, a person may not be able to access all their rights as a citizen, including enrolment at school, obtaining a passport, Medicare card or driver licence, or accessing government benefits. A birth certificate cannot be issued without the birth first having been registered.
A significant number of people are affected. Around 75,000 babies are born in Victoria every year and of those, more than 2,500 births in 2011 were not registered within the required period of six months. During a period of nine years from 2003, in which year 62,712 births were notified to the Registrar, 659 children, or a little more than one per cent, had not had any registration process commenced by 2012. If even one per cent of the population is not registered, clearly over time that will become a cohort of thousands of people.
Our consultations confirmed that some of the most vulnerable members of our community face barriers to registering the birth of their child and accessing a birth certificate. We heard that maternal and child health nurses sometimes attend the registry with vulnerable mothers who are not confident about completing the process themselves. We were told that CALD parents often face difficulties for linguistic and cultural reasons. In some cultures, dates and birth details are not commonly recorded, making the process both unfamiliar and difficult.
The report outlines and recommends reforms to the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act 1996 (Vic) as well as to the policy and practices of the Victorian Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages.
There are 26 recommendations. Most of them relate to changes to Registry policy and/or practice, and are directed to making the process of registering a birth and applying for a birth certificate accessible to all members of the Victorian community.
Significant issues can arise in birth registration where one party may be the subject of family violence. The Commission specifically addresses this matter. We recommend amendment of the birth registration statement to include addressing the possibility of family violence and clearly outlining what information may be sought from the alleged perpetrator. We also recommend that if potential violence is identified the Registry will not include the address of the applicant on the birth certificate, and will contact the applicant before contacting the alleged perpetrator.
Another issue is the case of people who seek to obtain a birth certificate years after their birth was registered. For a young person with few identity documents, it can be difficult to establish their identity to obtain a birth certificate. The Commission recommends that the Registrar broaden the category of persons who may certify identity documents as well as the type of proof-of-identity documents the Registrar will accept to support an application.
The Commission was informed in consultations and submissions that the fee for a birth certificate can cause hardship for some people. Therefore, the Commission recommends that a fee exemption apply for vulnerable and disadvantaged people who are 'eligible beneficiaries' as defined by section 3 of the State Concessions Act 2004 (Vic). The Commission recommends that relevant financial offsets be considered such as a modest increase in the scheduled fee for a standard birth certificate or an offset derived from other products and services such as commemorative certificates.
The Commission further recommends that the power to remit fees be retained within the Act and that guidelines be developed which outline what an appropriate case may be.
Finally, the Commission makes recommendations regarding a specific promotional and education function for the Registrar in meeting the objects of the Act.
The Commission found that the processes of the Victorian Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages are of a high standard and thanks the Registry for the assistance it provided to the project.
While some recommendations relate to specific issues of concern to Indigenous and CALD communities, improved awareness of the importance of birth registration and accessibility to a birth should benefit all Victorians.
The report can be viewed online at http://www.lawreform.vic.gov.au/all-projects/birth-registration-and-birth-certificates. Printed copies are available from the Victorian Parliament and from the VLRC.