European Court Grand Chamber to rule on prisoner votes next Tuesday
15 May 2012
The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights is to deliver its latest, hotly anticipated, decision on prisoner votes next Tuesday 22 May. The case is Scoppola v. Italy (n° 3). The Court’s press release is here.
The UK intervened in the case, with the Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC himself travelling to Strasbourg to explain the UK’s views (including, classily, some submissions in French). As a result, the UK was granted an extension of time to comply with the decision in the original prisoner votes case, Hirst No. 2 and the more recent Greens and MT. The UK will therefore have 6 months from 22 May 2012 to introduce a Bill to Parliament (see this correspondence between the UK and the Court) to make the UK voting system compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights. Which is to say, it will have until 22 November 2012. Or is it 23 November?
Notwithstanding the precise date for implementation, the big question is what the Court is going to decide. I discussed the possibilities in this post; in short, unfortunately the Court has delivered a number of conflicting rulings in relation to which prisoners should be given the vote, starting with Hirst (No. 2) in which it stated, simply, that the blanket ban on prisoners voting was not ECHR compliant and that it would be for States to decide the detail in relation to which prisoners would be able to vote. But the court went much further in a different case, Frodl v Austria, in which it effectively told Austria that almost all prisoners should be allowed to vote (see Carl Gardner’s post for a detailed comparison).
As I have said before, I suspect that the Grand Chamber will in Scoppola seek to clarify the apparent conflict between Hirst No. 2 and Frodl, and probably to reduce the effect of Frodl and give states a wider range of choice. This is likely to be presented as a victory for the UK Government and perhaps even appeasement towards the UK, but in reality the Court probably went too far in Frodl and the Grand Chamber is likely, as is appropriate, reign in the effect of that judgment.
Arguably, the UK’s relationship with Strasbourg has improved since the prisoner voting issue last surfaced, largely as a result of the constructive engagement at the Brighton Conference and the UK’s successful chairmanship of the Council of Europe. The Coalition Government have, it would seem, moved on from some of the more aggressive rhetoric towards the Court, probably because the Conservative coalition partners have realised that there is no chance, in this Parliament at least, of the power of the ECHR or the Court being significantly reduced.
Of course, this theory will be tested following the Scoppola decision. But one things seems almost certain: the Grand Chamber will not reverse the effect of its decision in Hirst No. 2, so in order to comply with its obligations under the ECHR, the UK will have to give allow some prisoners to vote fairly soon, and realistically before the end of the current Parliament.
All will be revealed on Tuesday. In the meantime, you find links to our previous posts on the issue below.
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