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What you should know about Closure Laws

One of the terms you should be familiar with if you are involved in the field of genealogical research is Closure Law. This law falls under the Privacy Act that is in effect in many different countries and is designed to protect an individual’s constitutional rights to privacy.

In the United States, the Privacy Act was passed in 1974 after widespread instances of privacy abuses were made public during the administration of the U.S. president Richard Nixon. Part of the Privacy Act of the United States says “No agency shall disclose any record which is contained in a system of records by any means of communication to any person, or to another agency, except pursuant to a written request by, or with the prior written consent of, the individual to whom the record pertains....”

There are however a few instances when the Privacy law may be exempted. These instances would include use of these personal records for statistical purposes by the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labour Statistics, for official use by the various government agencies, for archiving purposes, for use in law enforcement and anti-criminality procedures, for Congressional investigations and various other legal reasons that the government and its various offices may see fit to perform.

When these personal documents are used for archiving purposes, civil registry records and other informational material that are used are typically the ones which have been proven to contain historically relevant data and which the government determines to be valuable enough to require their continued preservation.

The time period for Closure Laws varies slightly from country to country and even between different districts of the same country. In England for example, the closure period for public documents such as census returns and workhouse records extends to 100 years. This means that any information that you wish to access pertaining to a particular person that was recorded in 1923 will not be available for your use until 2023. This may be a slightly annoying stumbling block to get around in the course of your genealogical research, but it serves an important role in protecting the individual’s rights (including your own) and helps lessen the possibility of important documents being sold by the government to any unauthorised parties.

A good practice to follow in the course of your genealogical research is not to make public the dates of birth and marriage of individuals who are still currently alive. Instead you can mark down their current status as “Living” or something of a similar nature. While it is true that you are unlikely to be held legally liable for divulging such dates in a public document, professional courtesy among genealogical researchers dictates that you respect the privacy rights of every individual and refrain from publishing the said information.

As is the case with Closure Laws, Privacy Laws will also vary from country to country so it would be a good idea to familiarise yourself with their different conventions in order not to step on any ethical boundaries.

Original Authors: Doods Pangburn
Edit Update Authors: M.A.Harris
Updated On: 20/06/2008

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