Resistance is fertile #3: the law of census refusal

Genny from No Concensus has kindly allowed us to adapt a piece she wrote into a three-part blog piece. The first was on why people refused, the second on the court process; this week, it’s the law surrounding census refusal.

The Office of National Statistics, the government body responsible for the Census, reported that 400 cases of failure to complete the 2011 Census were sent to the Crown Prosecution Service with a view to prosecution. This is ten times more than 2001, with over 100 convictions so far. The conviction rate is perhaps unsurprising since there is no immediately obvious defence under the Census Act for failure to comply with the Census. Many Magistrates and District Judges seem to be of the opinion that Census refusers are guilty almost by definition.

After the 2001 Census, around 40 prosecutions were brought with only one defendant found ‘not guilty’. But with a much greater awareness of Lockheed Martin’s and CACI’s involvement as well as concerns about data security and surveillance issues, this time things don’t look nearly so clear-cut. A number of cases are raising important legal challenges, helped by effective networking between defendants, supporters, support organisations, and legal advisers.

Some of the arguments that defendants are using include that any conviction may breach their rights as enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. For example, being compelled to complete the census could breach the right to privacy, the right to freedom of conscience and religion, the right to self-expression, and non-discrimination laws. Questions are also being raised about the right of census enforcement officers to interview people about their failure to return the forms, as well Lockheed Martin’s obligation under the US Patriot Act to supply the US government with any data collected if requested to do so. There are also grave concerns about the general confidentiality and security (or not) of the information gathered under the Census and how cases are being selected for prosecution.

Refusal by the Magistrates court in Liverpool to award legal aid to two defendants on the basis that they failed the ‘interests of justice’ test has been challenged by a Judicial Review in the High Court on behalf of one defendant, with the other an ‘interested party’. The High Court recently ruled in the defendant’s favour, paving the way for others to receive Legal Aid, although some people won’t qualify because they don’t meet the financial criteria. A number of lawyers and barristers have volunteered to help in these situations and are assisting with cases on a ‘pro bono’ basis.

We are aware of ongoing census cases in Liverpool, Wrexham, Shrewsbury, Birmingham, Bristol, Reading, Barnstaple, Bury St Edmunds, Glasgow and Falkirk. It looks likely, on the basis of trial outcomes to date, that Magistrates and District Judges will return guilty verdicts on Census refusers although this should not be seen as a foregone conclusion. Defendants found guilty can appeal and these cases may eventually end up at the High Court which has greater powers to determine issues involving Human Rights Act compliance. One defendant in Liverpool currently has an appeal at the Crown Court and has been awarded Legal Aid for this, with a senior Judge appointed to hear the case on 4th April.

In their entirety, these cases are undoubtedly of significant legal interest but, whatever the ultimate outcome in the courts, we owe a vote of thanks to all conscientious census objectors. Without their dedicated efforts, the unacceptable government practice of paying them large sums of money from the public purse to unethical companies would never have reached public attention.

Thanks for sticking with us!

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1 Response to Resistance is fertile #3: the law of census refusal

  1. Tom Voute says:

    Lockheed Martin now seems to have landed a very large computing contract with the UK govennment, but it seems to be not in the news here. See for example:

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