The Project

In today’s world the demands for proof of identity are growing ever greater. Whenever you try to obtain a driver’s licence, open a bank account, obtain a job, get a tax file number, travel overseas, register for social security, or undertake education you are likely to asked for proof of who you are and, in many cases, how old you are.  The fundamental document required in most such situations is a birth certificate.

Significant numbers of Indigenous Australians are unable to prove who they are  — either because their birth was never registered, or because they cannot satisfy the requirements of the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages in the State or Territory in which they were born for obtaining a birth certificate. This can make such people legally invisible, preventing them from enjoying all the rights of citizenship that most of us take for granted.


The problems people face in many developing countries because of the lack of adequate processes for the registration and certification of births have received a substantial amount of attention recently. The right to birth registration is recognised in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Major programs have been established to rectify inadequate registration and certification processes in Asia, Africa and South and Central America, and significant funding and other assistance has been provided by countries like Australia in support of such schemes.  Major international agencies such as UNICEF, and prominent NGOs such as PLAN International, have played a significant role in seeking to address the problem.

Despite our recognition of the problem elsewhere it has become clear that similar problems exist in Australia for some sections of the community; most notably for Indigenous Australians. 

In 2008, Joel Orenstein, of the Gippsland Community Legal Service, published an article pointing to significant identification difficulties faced by some members of the Victorian Aboriginal community because of the lack of registration or certification of their births.

Preliminary investigations by Paula Gerber of Monash Law School pointed to a high level of non-registration of births amongst Indigenous Victorians. Similar issues emerged in other States and Territories and even when births had been registered, Indigenous people sometimes confronted major obstacles when trying to obtain certificates as proof of their identity.

Melissa Castan, Paula Gerber and Andrew Gargett took the matter further by looking at the implications of problematic Indigenous Australian access to birth registration systems in the context of international human rights law.

A common thread running through all publication on this matter emphasised the paucity of existing empirical data in the Australian context. As Castan, Gerber & Gargett noted: “…nobody has yet undertaken the comprehensive empirical research to uncover the full extent of this problem of legal invisibility within Australian Indigenous communities.”

With a view to remedying this defect Paula Gerber, Melissa Castan, Lynette Russell and Jane Freemantle, in conjunction with other relevant agencies, obtained an Australian Research Council grant to undertake an in-depth empirical analysis of the problems of non-registration of Indigenous births and the related difficulties experienced in obtaining birth certificates.

This research seeks to fulfil the need for scholarly quantitative and qualitative studies of the extent, causes and effects of non-registration and certification in Victoria, Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

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