Friday, 3 August 2012

GRO records are not state secrets - APGI

The Association of Professional Genealogists in Ireland (APGI) has called upon the GRO to hand over a copy of its civil registers database so that the records can be uploaded to www.irishgenealogy.ie.

This follows the publication of the Ombudsman's report into restricted access to civil registration registers by the General Register Office of Ireland. My initial post about the report is here.

In essence, the two-year investigation found that under the National Archives Act 1986, the public has a right of access to any of the State's civil registers of births, deaths and marriages compiled over 30 years ago. In addition, the public has a right under the Civil Registration Act 2004 to purchase extracts from the civil registers through examining the indexes to them held centrally by the GRO.

APGI, together with CIGO, was consulted by the Ombudsman during her two-year investigation and its President, Helen Kelly, describes the findings as 'a victory for common sense.'

She explains: 'Until 2004, under the former Victorian legislation, the public’s right of access to locally held civil registers was enshrined in law. Arbitrarily, this right was stripped away under the 2004 Act and all register books – both locally and centrally held – were subsequently beyond reach.'

In theory, the Ombudsman's finding would mean the register books should now be made available to all researchers.

Unfortunately, the GRO disagrees with the interpretation of the National Archives Act and says it is relying upon advice from the Attorney General. For some reason it refuses to disclose this advice, even to the Ombudsman.

“Anyone would think that these records are state secrets,” says Ms Kelly “They are not. They are public records and always have been. The number of researchers wishing to gain direct access to locally held registers is unlikely to prove onerous.”

Researchers will recognise only too well APGI's description of the frustrating process in operation at the GRO's Research Room in Dublin where they access civil records by identifying entries in the national indexes and then purchase a photocopy of the register entries. 'The problem is that the indexes give very little information and leave researchers playing an expensive game of lucky dip! Just to add to the frustration, the GRO applies a nonsensical daily limit of only five photocopies per person! For visiting overseas researchers this is bewildering'

APGI's statement continues: 'The Ombudsman has called upon the GRO to publish the legal advice it has received from the Attorney General and APGI adds its voice to this call. The Ombudsman has also directed the GRO to enter into talks with the relevant government departments and agencies to give effect to her report’s findings. She also wants the GRO to report back to her every six months about the steps it is taking.

In this context, APGI calls upon the GRO to make available to the Department of Arts, Culture & the Gaeltacht, a copy of its database of scanned images of the civil registers so that those records can swiftly be added to the Department's website, www.irishgenealogy.ie, where many other genealogy resources are already made publicly available.'