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Applying for a copy of a Birth, Marriage, or Death Certificate

simon gray 2017-01-20, 16:08:44
Read this article aloud — 1065 words

tl;dr - Applying for a copy of certificates from your council's register office is considerably more painful than it should be. And for online applications, it probably makes more sense to signpost people to the central government General Register Office site.

A couple of years ago it occurred to me that I didn't know where my copy of my birth certificate is, and that it might be a good idea to get another one. When I went to the website of the council where we lived until I was 10, I saw there was no online process to order copy certificates, meaning an order process of sending a cheque or postal order through the post. Since I've not had a chequebook for about 10 years, that meant going to a post office to buy a postal order - and Birmingham city centre only has two post offices, meaning most lunchtimes and near-closing time the queue is out the door and down the street. So since I had no pressing need for a copy of my birth certificate at that point I didn't pursue it.

Time passes and more recently a need for my birth certificate arose - but of course this problem of having to go and get a postal order still got in the way of me stirring myself, until last week I eventually hauled myself out to the post office queue to pay £11.25 for a £10 postal order. And by this time, the deadline for needing to order it has rapidly approached, and it's touch and go whether it will arrive back in time, so as well as posting the order I sent an email to the register office asking what the chances were of it coming back by return; I get a reply from them asking me to phone back, and they said unfortunately the standard turnaround for the £10 is indeed five working days, meaning it would miss my deadline, but I could pay the balance over the phone to order an express service which they'd post out to me within 48 hours. But further in to the conversation it also transpired that I might not be registered in that local authority anyway - where I was born was on the other side of the boundary in what is now a different council area, so she directed me to apply there instead, which fortunately does offer an online service.

Now I'm on the other council website, and the first thing it tells me to do is have a look on this third party website maintained by volunteers which aims to be a database of all the registrations in the county to see if my registration was listed, because there's an index reference number on there making it easier for them to find it. The database though isn't complete and my registration wasn't there. I fill in the order form anyway, and it then took me to the payment page. Before it took me to the payment page it gave me a series of instructions of what to do on the payment page - which I duly didn't bother to read, which of course caused errors on the payment page, because I wasn't entering a valid council tax reference number. So I go back and read the instructions I didn't read the first time, and it becomes clear that the payment form is a generic payment form for which the user must on it specifically select what service you're paying for - the form can't receive a flag from the referring webpage to tell it what service the user is paying for in advance. Corrected, I make my payment, and I hope that indeed my registration was in that council rather than the one we thought it was in.

I say 'I hope that's where my registration is' - aside from the confusion about which registration district the hospital I was born in is in, could my parents have registered me in the district we lived in anyway? But more to the point, when this possibility of me being in the other council's records came up, it occurred to me, when I was born neither council even existed anyway; I was born in an area which at the time was an urban district within a shire county council, which in 1974 became a metropolitan district within a metropolitan county council - and where responsibility for registration transferred from the shire county council to the metropolitan district. But will the records have transferred? Regardless of which particular council office my registration records physically exist, should I actually have applied to the shire county council I was born in which still exists (albeit covering a smaller area), or either of the unitary councils of the metropolitan boroughs which now exist (the metropolitan county having been abolished in 1986 anyway)? Where I live now, Birmingham, it could be even more complicated, because pre-1974 different parts of Birmingham were actually principally in Warwickshire and Worcestershire with some parts of what people think of as Birmingham also being in Staffordshire.

In the course of trying to get a certificate copy quickly I discovered that there's an alternative route to applying for a copy certificate - via the central government General Register Office. Not only does that offer both an online service (albeit interrupted by a login system) and a telephone service, for £10 cheaper than many councils charge for the express service.

And so it occurs to me - given the expense that councils who don't yet have an online service will have to incur to get one, and the expense that councils with an online service will have to incur to turn a rubbish service into a decent service, wouldn't it make more sense for council websites to not actually bother, and just signpost people to the GRO site - and for GDS to prioritise improving the central service? Is providing copies of certificates to people applying online a sufficiently surplus-generating activity for councils that they have a business reason to maintain it themselves rather than signposting people to the central government service?

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In group Public / Third Sector Digital

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