Prosecutions – lessons from 2001

What will happen if you don’t fill in your census form? Here’s the account from the General Register Office for Scotland of what happened after the 2001 census. It is extremely difficult to prosecute anyone unless they admit to refusing to fill in their form.  Whether or not you fill in your census form, you should exercise your right to silence if interviewed about it.

Source: Taking Scotland’s 2001 Census – A Review  (pdf  document)


Emphasis added by Ethical Census

Completion of a census form is a legal obligation. In any particular census, there will, however, be those who refuse to comply. In dealing with these cases, the main aim was to obtain a completed census form rather than to ensure prosecution.

For ‘refusals’ to be successfully prosecuted, a complicated and time-consuming process had to be undertaken by field managers to ensure that the necessary documentary evidence was in place. This involves warning letters pointing out the legal obligation, extra visits, and the taking, witnessing and signing of an interview ‘under caution’ in which the refusal is admitted by the person responsible for completing the form. Potential refusals are allowed legal representation at this interview which can complicate the process further. Moreover, contact with potential refusals can be extremely difficult and this can make identification of the person responsible for completion of the form very difficult. As noted above, in carrying out the various steps in this non-compliance process, the emphasis is on getting a completed form rather than achieving a prosecution. Nevertheless, successful prosecutions can act as a deterrent for ‘refusals’ in the future.

In the 2001 Census, given the difficulties experienced in mail throughput, a major difficulty was in distinguishing those from whom a completed Census form had not been received because of deliberate refusal from those whose form was merely stuck in the post.

By the time the enumeration finished, and enumerators handed over completed census forms to their Team Leaders, they were instructed to record as ‘refusals’ any household from which a completed form was expected but not received. This resulted in field managers, already overloaded with trying to retain and manage as many staff as possible for a last push round non-responding addresses, being overloaded with many thousands of cases, making it impossible to cope in terms of attempting to make contact to arrange interviews under caution and to carry out such interviews so that the required documentary evidence for subsequent possible prosecution could be in place. In many of these cases, the completed form was, in any case, subsequently found to have been delayed in the post.
In the event, only 14 cases were considered strong enough, in terms of identification and supporting evidence, to be considered for prosecution. 8 were forwarded to Procurators Fiscal and 3 were successfully prosecuted. Of the remainder, 1 case resulted in a census form being completed and 4 were not proceeded with for various reasons.
Clearly, the value of the entire process needs to be re-assessed and the procedures for identifying and prosecuting non-compliers need to be overhauled and simplified.

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