Concerns Bill could restrict research into roots


GENEALOGISTS HAVE raised concerns about moves to resurrect the Privacy Bill 2006, which they say could restrict access to records for genealogical or biographical research.

The Bill was parked in 2007 after the then minister for justice and law reform, the late Brian Lenihan, said he would wait to assess the performance of the then newly formed Press Council of Ireland. It was restored to the Seanad order paper for debate last year and is now listed as presented by Fine Gael Senator and leader of the Seanad Maurice Cummins.

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter last week said he would revisit the Bill following the publishing of photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge topless in the Irish Daily Star newspaper.

The Privacy Bill makes it a tort (civil wrong) to violate a person’s privacy. Privacy is not defined, though it says the individual is entitled to “that which is reasonable in all the circumstances having regard to the rights of others and to the requirements of public order, morality and the common good”. Actions held to violate a person’s privacy include surveillance, the disclosure of material obtained by surveillance, the use of a person’s likeness for financial gain without consent, and the disclosure of letters, medical records or other personal documents.

Even if the material was in a register to which the public had access, or the material had been disclosed to the person’s family or friends, or to another person without the consent of the complainant, the person or organisation publishing it could be sued.

Michael Merrigan, general secretary of the Genealogical Society of Ireland, said the Bill could have serious implications for genealogists, biographers and social historians. “This measure could have a devastating effect on the development of Irish genealogical and local history studies,” he said. Information contained in public registers, for example, registers of births, marriages and deaths, were “essential” for researchers.

Those in charge of such records could “arbitrarily and unnecessarily restrict or deny access” on the grounds that access could infringe privacy rights under the Bill. It was also possible, “through fear of litigation”, the legislation could hamper the publication of biographies, especially if such publications contained data obtained from public registers. He said the Genealogical Society of Ireland would seek the inclusion of a clause excluding bona fide genealogical or biographical research from the provisions of the Bill.