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The Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, has today published a report entitled ‘Hidden History? – The Law, the Archives and the General Register Office’,  on her Investigation into the public’s right to access registers of births, deaths and marriages held by the General Register Office (GRO), prompted by a member of the public was refused access who to examine the death registers from the late 1800s for a townland in Co. Westmeath.  

The Ombudsman found that under the Civil Registration Act 2004 the public is prevented from directly accessing birth, death and marriage register entries, and the GRO has no discretion under that Act to grant access. It was also found that prior to the Civil Registration Act 2004, the public had direct access to the registers of births, deaths and marriages. However, that Act established a restrictive mechanism for accessing the registers which created significant practical difficulties for those wishing to access such records. Furthermore, while access is restricted under the 2004 Act, the Ombudsman found that under the National Archives Act 1986 the public has a right to inspect those birth, death and marriage records held by the GRO which are more than 30 years old.  

The Ombudsman has recommended that the GRO engage with the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and other bodies to explore options for facilitating the public’s right to inspect these records.
According to a press release issued by the Office of the Ombudsman today, while the GRO has accepted the recommendation, it is a qualified acceptance. This arises from the fact that the GRO does not accept the Ombudsman’s finding that GRO records, more than 30 years old, are covered by the right of inspection provided for in the National Archives Act 1986. The GRO’s rejection of the Ombudsman’s finding is stated to be based on legal advice provided by the Attorney General’s Office. The GRO failed to provide the Ombudsman with a copy of this advice or with a statement of the reasoning on which the advice is based.