Department of Internal Affairs accepts it unreasonably interpreted requirements for death certificate

Social Services and Care of Children
Ombudsmen Act 1975
Legislation display text:
Ombudsmen Act 1975; Civil Union Act 2004
Government Department
David McGee
Case number(s):
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Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) did not allow certain details on death certificate—complainant requested amended death certificate for father because of error relating to birth date noted on original certificate—DIA accepted the Ombudsman’s opinion that the information should be recorded as required under the legislation at the time of death

The complainant wrote to DIA, requesting that it amend her father’s death certificate, which recorded his date of birth incorrectly. DIA subsequently issued a replacement death certificate that recorded the correct date of birth. The complainant noted that since her father died in 1986, the Civil Union Act 2004 had been introduced and the form of the death certificate had been changed. The changes now reflected blank spaces or inaccurate details in the replacement death certificate.

In terms of the complainant’s parents’ 40 plus years of marriage, under the relationship(s) section, the replacement death certificate showed the ‘Relationship status at time of death’ as Not Recorded’;  ‘Relationship type’ was shown with a dash ( - ) and; in relation to ‘Spouse/Partner’, ‘Sex’ was also shown with a dash ( - ) .

The complainant felt that it was insulting to have her parents’ relationship status and relationship type shown as ‘not recorded’ on her father’s death certificate, especially when that information was readily available to be recorded correctly as ‘Married’. She said it was also distressing and insulting to have her mother’s sex shown with a dash ( - ) rather than recorded correctly as Female’ (F).

After complaining to DIA, the complainant was advised that Whilst our legislation does not allow us to retrospectively add information to an existing registration and thus have it included on a certificate I believe that in respect of death entries we may be entitled to add at least the ‘relationship type’ field.’  DIA provided an updated death certificate showing ‘Relationship type’ as ‘Marriage’. However the other two matters were not altered and the complainant lodged a complaint to the Ombudsman.

The Ombudsman noted that her father’s death was registered in 1986 and the information requirements of that time were contained in 1951 legislation. Furthermore, the Ombudsman commented that:

I accept that the form of a death certificate issued today is prescribed by the provisions of the current Act and regulations, regardless of when that death occurred. The current regulations do require a person’s sex, relationship status immediately before death, and marriage details to be recorded in a death certificate ‘in all cases’ (rule 7). I cannot accept [DIA’s] apparent claim that, in respect of everyone who died before the regulations were revised to take account of civil unions, it does not hold this information and is unable to comply with the requirement in rule 7 to include it. If this were the case the Act and regulations would have produced a situation that is clearly unreasonable and improperly discriminatory. I think you will agree that every effort should be made to interpret and apply legislation so as not to bring this about.

The Ombudsman concluded DIA was unreasonable to refuse to issue to the complainant a corrected death certificate that shows her late father’s relationship status at the time of his death and the sex of her mother. He commented:

With all due respect to [DIA’s] arguments in this regard, I am not persuaded that its views are correct. But, even if they were, and the Registrar-General was prohibited from including such information, then this would be a case where, as I have said above, I believe that section 22(1)(b) [of the OA] would apply; omitting the information would then be ‘in accordance with a provision of an Act [or] regulation… that is or may be unreasonable … or improperly discriminatory.’

The complaint was sustained and after seeking legal advice, DIA updated its record within the registration system and issued the complainant with an updated death certificate showing all requested information.

This case note is published under the authority of the Ombudsmen Rules 1989. It sets out an Ombudsman’s view on the facts of a particular case. It should not be taken as establishing any legal precedent that would bind an Ombudsman in future.

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