In May 2012, a dozen Indigenous young people from East Gippsland set out to walk the Kokoda trail in Papua New Guinea, the site of a bloody battle between Australian and Japanese troops in 1942. The physical and mental challenge would encourage them to develop self-reliance, confidence and teamwork, and increase their understanding of the experiences of Australian service people – Indigenous and non-Indigenous - during World War Two.
However, several of the young travellers experienced difficulties as they prepared for departure because they did not have birth certificates, without which it is impossible to obtain a passport. As the young people were under 18, they required parental consent to obtain a birth certificate, which was hard or impossible to secure in cases where the parents were unknown, unco-operative, or had passed on. Although all finally obtained the required documentation, one of the group only obtained her passport the day before the trip.
The Victorian Law Reform Commission (VLRC) heard about this incident while we were carrying out consultations in East Gippsland for our birth registration and birth certificates project. The episode illustrates how not having a birth certificate can impact on people’s lives in unexpected ways, often years later.
Back in 2008, participants in the Aboriginal Driver Education Project, also in East Gippsland, had a similar experience. This program assists young Kooris to obtain learner permits, then provides driving lessons. We were advised that problems arose when it turned out that more than 300 participants had no birth certificates, so could not obtain a learner permit or driver licence, which prevented them from participating in the program.
In a twist of fate, the coordinator of the Driver Ed project, who had been advocating for the young people, discovered when applying for a passport that her own birth had not been registered. “I felt upset and downhearted,” she told us. “I thought ‘Who am I?’ It put me through what they are going through.”
The VLRC’s project on birth registration and birth certificates had its origins in early 2012 when we held discussions with the Castan Centre at Monash University, which is conducting a national research project on Indigenous birth registration. While many of our projects are referred to us by the Attorney General, community law reform projects can be proposed by anyone and often arise through the work of groups with experience in a particular area.
Our focus in this review is not solely on Indigenous people, but on all members of the Victorian community. For most people birth registration is completed in a timely manner, but some members of the community face barriers in registering a birth or applying for a birth certificate. In recent years in Victoria, hundreds of births every year have remained unregistered, although it is a legal requirement to register a birth. For example, 748 births from 2005 remained unregistered in July 2012.
Furthermore, it is unknown how many people register their child’s birth but fail to obtain a birth certificate due to the costs involved.
During September and October 2012 we travelled the state, conducting 30 community consultations and talking to young parents, maternal and child health nurses, midwives, the staff of migrant resource centres, Aboriginal health services and justice service centres. Participants told us about issues that can discourage people from registering births, especially people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities, Indigenous people and people living in low socio-economic circumstances.
We were told repeatedly that for some single mothers and separated families, the requirement to put both parents’ details (including a full address) on the registration form can be a barrier. Some parents are reluctant to sign the forms, or to seek out the other parent for their signature, especially in cases where domestic violence is involved. In some cases the identity of the father is unknown.
We have learned that for some parents the cost of obtaining a certificate, $28.60, is enough to make them delay the process while they prioritise more urgent needs. For others, especially those with low literacy and/or English language skills, the complexity of the form can be a disincentive. Some people are simply unaware of the importance of registering a birth and obtaining a certificate.
Overall we have learned that while for most of the population registering a birth and obtaining a birth certificate is routine and inexpensive, this is not the experience of everyone. It was important for us to go out and discuss the issues with the community, as people experiencing difficulties would be unlikely to submit a written submission to the VLRC.
As with all our community law reform projects, the purpose of our consultations is to listen to the voices of the community, identify the issues and suggest practical, workable solutions. After considering the views expressed in consultation meetings and in written submissions, we will develop recommendations for reforms to the law and practice at a state level. There is also scope to link state and federal government services more efficiently.
A person’s identity is not dependent on the issue of a government document. A person has identity by reason of that person’s existence. However the functioning of a person in society can be adversely impacted, sometimes in significant ways, by not having birth registration or a birth certificate.
Our report is scheduled to be presented to the Attorney General for consideration in August 2013.
If you would like to know more about this project, contact the VLRC’s community law reform manager, Myra.White@lawreform.vic.gov.au