Request for information about adoption
Request for information about requester’s adoption—requester unaware she had been adopted until recently—birth mother now deceased—information withheld to protect privacy—relevance of family relationship and age of information considered in determining strength of privacy interest—file made available to requester in its entirety
This case involved a request by a New Zealand-born woman who had lived overseas since her childhood, for information about her adoption, which had taken place in New Zealand some 50 years previously. The requester had learned of her adoption by chance, quite recently; and had requested a copy of her original birth certificate pursuant to the provisions of the Adult Adoption Information Act. She then asked the Department of Social Welfare to trace her birth mother. The Department carried out the necessary research, and subsequently advised the requester that her birth mother had died some years ago. Because the requester’s adoption had taken place before the passing of the Adoption Act, the Department of Social Welfare did not hold an extensive adoption file. However, it did hold in its archives an old child welfare file on the requester’s mother and her two sisters, who had been placed in foster care as small children owing to the illness of their parents. Information about the requester’s birth and her adoptive parents was also held on the file. As is often the case with such files, a number of other individuals, such as foster parents and other children in the care of the Child Welfare Division, were also mentioned in documents held on the file. The Department provided the requester with copies of a number of documents, but withheld the balance in reliance upon section 9(2)(a) of the OIA, to protect the privacy of other persons named on the file.
The requester had managed to trace members of her late birth mother’s family, and contact had been established with her two maternal aunts, who had given their consent for any personal information about them to be released to the requester. Most of the information on the file was about the requester’s birth mother, and was clearly of a personal nature. However, as the birth mother was deceased, and given the age of the file and the relationship of the requester to the person who was the primary subject of the information, it was considered that no significant weight attached to the privacy interests involved. With regard to the other persons named on the file, it was considered that the information about them was so minimal, and/or of sufficient age as to render the privacy interests insignificant.
As the requester was currently visiting New Zealand, it seemed appropriate to enable her to view the file in person. Time constraints made it necessary for a view to be reached as quickly as possible. A direct consultation with the Privacy Commissioner’s office was therefore arranged, and the Commissioner agreed that the information on the file now had historical significance only. It was therefore concluded that there was no need to withhold any of the information on the file from the requester, and arrangements were made with the Department for her to read the file and to obtain copies of any documents she might require.
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.