Prisoner voting back on the human rights agenda this week

30 May 2010 by

The Guardian reports today that prisoner voting rights will be back in the public eye this week with critical comments from Europe and increased pressure from compensation claims.

Interestingly, the article has now been amended to remove part of a quote from the Ministry of Justice, who had initially said that “Disenfranchisement is an outdated, disproportionate punishment which has no place in a modern prison system with a renewed emphasis on rehabilitation and resettlement”. This line has been replaced by a policy-neutral quote. On the face of it, it seems that government may finally act on this issue, five years after the European Court of Human Rights criticism of its ban in the case of Hirst v UK.

In the 2005 decision of Hirst, the European Court held that Section 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, which prevents prisoners from voting, is in breach of the electoral right under Article 1 of Protocol 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Council of Europe, which monitors compliance with European Court of Human Rights decisions, will this week issue another rebuke against the UK government’s continuing refusal to act. The Guardian reports that

The committee of ministers… is to meet this week to discuss the UK’s failure to enfranchise prisoners following the ruling.The committee will then issue a stark public reminder to the government that it must comply with the ruling immediately. If it refuses, the committee has the power to refer the question of whether the government has failed in its obligations to the ECHR, a move that would put Westminster on a collision course with the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe.

The Council is probably hoping that the new government will show more willingness to act than the last one did. As the article states, “The Lib Dems were strongly critical of the previous government’s refusal to enfranchise the prison population while the Conservatives have consistently avoided addressing the issue.”

Compensation claims on the horizon

In the build up to the General Election we posted on the potential consequences of preventing prisoners from voting. The UK government is not bound to comply with judgments of the European Court (just as, technically at least, it need not comply with judgments of a UK court), but this leaves it open to compensation claims from spurned voters.

Lord Pannick suggested shortly before the election that prisoners may be entitled to around £750 compensation if denied the vote. This figure then became commonly touted as the amount of compensation people may receive having been denied due to administrative incompetence during the election. Solicitor firms are already launching claims, and in theory tens of thousands may follow.

The Council have pointed out that the UK is now “out of step with many other countries. Eighteen European countries have no restrictions on prisoners voting while in France and Germany a decision to disenfranchise a prisoner is left to the courts. In Australia and New Zealand the length of a prisoner’s sentence determines their right to vote. Other countries where prisoners have the right to vote include South Africa, Poland, and Canada.”

The continued pressure from Europe may finally make a difference to government policy, and the threat of compensation claims will focus minds. However, a change to the law may not be popular with the public,  and the Coalition Government may choose to save its energy for more pressing concerns, such as the economy.

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