Birth certification in Australia and the need for reform

Birth certification in Australia and the need for reform

06 June 2021 By Nesha Balasubramanian
Birth certification in Australia and the need for reform

In Australia, the birth certificate is of fundamental importance as the document that unlocks all the rights and privileges of citizenship. While the national rate of birth registration and certification is very strong, this is not the case for a number of minority and often marginalised communities, writes Nesha Balasubramanian.

Chief among these is Australia’s Indigenous community who, in Queensland for example, see their births under-registered and under-certified at a rate of 15- 18 percent.

But what are the key barriers related to obtaining birth certification in Australia? And how can these barriers be removed?

Birth certificates provide an individual with a record of their name, birth details, and very existence. Their full participation in society is heavily impeded if they do not possess one, as the enjoyment of so many important aspects of contemporary life is contingent on birth certificates for identification purposes.

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These include school enrolment, obtaining a driver’s licence, participation in club sport, employment, banking, government benefits access, housing, and voting (among others).

Birth certificates are also essential to government administrative functions and lacking one can lead to “legal invisibility”, or the inability to prove who you are, preventing you from enjoying all the rights of citizenship often taken for granted. 

As part of our research, we spoke to community members who had personal and professional experience with the consequences of lacking a birth certificate.

One such individual was Jerrilee Franich, a law student and legal intern at DLA Piper Australia, who recounted the challenges her childhood friends, who lack their birth certificates, face.

Ms Franich commented: “I have a number of friends who, through one tragedy or life event or another, lack their birth certificates. Consequently, they have encountered challenges in accessing government services, such as Centrelink and Medicare, applying to institutions of higher education, and proving their Aboriginality with their local Aboriginal Corporation. Technically speaking, they aren’t even registered Australian citizens, and they have suffered the consequences as a result.”

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Who doesn’t have birth certificates?

Birth under-registration and under-certification are generally most prevalent in disadvantaged and minority groups, such as Indigenous Australians, children in out-of-home care, and children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

It is also more likely in births occurring in rural hospitals; where the mother smoked or had an alcohol-related diagnosis during pregnancy; and where the mother’s own birth was unregistered, and she had no private health insurance. 

Indigenous children are particularly over-represented in birth under-registration and under-certification statistics. The aforementioned Queensland rate of 15-18 per cent dwarfs that of non-Indigenous births at 1.8 per cent, and dramatically increases to 23-27 per cent where the birth occurs in a remote location. 

Western Australia’s statistics are similar, with almost one in five Indigenous children under 16 years of age having unregistered and uncertified births. 

As part of our research, law student and DLA Piper Australia legal intern Marcus Traucnieks emphasised the sad irony inherent in the under-registration and under-certification of Indigenous births.

Mr Traucnieks commented: “It is unfortunate enough that substantial numbers of individuals in a country such as ours do not possess the most foundational of identity documents, often through no fault of their own. However, it is sadder still that Indigenous people – the First Australians – are disproportionately afflicted by a lack of birth formalisation and the accompanying consequences. That many of our First Nations peoples are effectively stateless on their own ancestral lands is an absurdity, and it is too often one perpetuated by disadvantage, and the law itself.”

What are the barriers?

There are many reasons why people might find it difficult or be unable to obtain a birth certificate, including financial difficulties; insecure housing; apprehension about government; and low English language proficiency.

Birth certification comes at a cost, with every state and territory charging a fee. While fee exemptions are available, the relevant information is often near impossible to find, the application processes invariably complicated, and the eligibility very narrow. 

A 2014 Queensland Health investigation identified a number of issues inherent in the birth registration and certification processes, including public perceptions regarding cost and late registration penalties; digitised registration and its problems for remote or computer illiterate parents; and cultural inappropriateness for Indigenous clients. 

Further issues include the requisite standard of literacy and practical means to complete and return paperwork, and the reliance on parents recognising the process’ value. 

As part of our research, law student and DLA Piper Australia legal intern Jason Smith, offered an insightful take on the very concept of birth certificates and the appropriateness of the purposes they serve to disadvantaged communities.

Mr Smith commented: “When we decided that you need a piece of paper proving you were born in order to open a bank account, visit your brother in prison, or operate a vehicle, we weren’t concerned with ‘closing the gap’. We were focused on tax evasion, money laundering, streamlining online applications, and making sure it was easier for law enforcement agencies to target suspects – all commendable goals at first glance. But the question one might put forward is: should these aims trump the goal of improving the lot in life of Australians who are in most ways battling the hardest?”

What can be done?

To reduce the rates of birth under-registration and under-certification, especially within minority and marginalised communities, the government must improve awareness and education surrounding the important purposes formal birth registration serves.

It must also work to increase its accessibility, and broaden exemptions, such that birthplace, skin colour and parent circumstances cease to be barriers individuals cannot overcome.

The community and non-profit sectors also have a role to play. For one, DLA Piper Australia’s birth certificate clinic provides assistance to individuals in complex birth certificate cases, supporting them with registering their birth and obtaining their birth certificates.

The goal of the clinic is also to engage in systemic advocacy with offices of births, deaths and marriages to remove barriers for individuals in accessing their birth certificates.

DLA Piper’s ambition for the clinic is to create a system where no matter your background, your location, the time since your birth, or the complexity of the circumstances of your birth, every Australian is able to access a birth certificate easily and promptly. This will then provide a gateway for individuals to access education, employment, health services, bank accounts, and other identification documents.

For most Australians, accessing and enjoying the rights and privileges of citizenship will seldom be an issue. However, this is not the case for those communities disproportionately affected by birth under-registration and under-certification.

Where the government can and must realise much-needed reform, it should not be alone in coming to the table.

All Australians should support improving awareness and education and increasing accessibility in the birth formalisation space, and they are causes the community and non-profit sectors can lead.

Nesha Balasubramanian is a pro bono associate at DLA Piper. Those mentioned in the article, i.e., Marcus Traucnieks, Jason Smith and Jerrilee Franich are CareerTracker interns at DLA Piper Australia. CareerTrackers creates paid internship and future employment opportunities for First Nations students. Marcus, Jerrilee and Jason are passionate about amplifying the voices of First Nations Peoples on issues directly affecting First Nations Peoples.

Birth certification in Australia and the need for reform
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