Victoria – The Ombudsperson released a report today with a cautionary message for public organizations – don’t develop policies that are too narrow to serve the public fairly.
In his report, Making Amends, Ombudsperson Jay Chalke highlights the case of a woman in her 70s who ran into bureaucratic roadblocks when she applied to the Vital Statistics Agency to amend her name on her B.C. birth certificate. Known as Elizabeth her whole life, her name was spelled Eliz“e”beth on her birth certificate in the 1940s. “The person on my original birth certificate never ever existed. They never did one thing in their life. They have no paper trail to their life,” Ms. M (as she is referred to in the report) states.
The Vital Statistics Act provides that a person may apply to amend their given name on their birth certificate by providing evidence that is “satisfactory to the Registrar General” of the Vital Statistics Agency that their correct name was used before their 12th birthday. The report explains that when Ms. M applied, the Vital Statistics Agency told her it required two pieces of documentary evidence to support the change in the spelling of her name. For Ms. M, finding more than one record of her name used when she was a child more than six decades earlier proved impossible. She was only able to provide an elementary school record. Ultimately, the Agency rejected her application because she had not met its policy requirements even though no such “two document” requirement exists in the Vital Statistics Act.
“Here we have a problem that should have been easy to fix,” said Ombudsperson Jay Chalke. “But what happened in practice was a drawn-out process that in my view was completely unnecessary. The Vital Statistics Agency’s Registrar General had broad discretion but instead imposed a rigid policy mandating two pieces of documentary evidence. This unfairly disadvantaged Ms. M because her age meant that those records had been destroyed over the years. This rigid requirement could also disadvantage others who, because of individual circumstances, may find locating multiple records impossible. Public administrators must not establish policy restrictions that prevent services being accessible to all.”
The report makes three recommendations including reconsidering Ms. M’s amendment request, updating the Vital Statistics Agency’s amendment policy to not require two pieces of documentary identification and more fully consider individual circumstances when using discretion in decision-making and providing training to staff. The Agency has accepted the Ombudsperson’s recommendations and has confirmed that it will allow Ms. M’s amendment request.
“This investigation focuses on a particular administrative issue – the limitation of discretion by policy – and in doing so, shines a light on an important lesson in fairness,” said Ombudsperson Jay Chalke. “Sometimes public employees are applying policies that don’t allow them to fully use the discretion they have to adequately consider the facts and circumstances of an applicant. I am issuing this report today to remind all public bodies of the important role that discretion plays in making decisions and as an example of what can happen if that discretion is not used fairly.”
To view the report, please click here