In his speech earlier this week the Attorney General announced that he would appear in person before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in two weeks’ time, when it hears Scoppola v Italy No2, a case concerning prisoner voting. The United Kingdom is due to intervene in this case, for reasons that readers of this blog will be fully aware of.
I agree with Adam Wagner’s comments that the Attorney General’s speech should (if I may respectfully say so) be applauded for the mature and positive way it addressed some very important issues regarding the future protection of human rights at both the domestic and European level. Here I would like to focus in particular upon what Dominic Grieve said about prisoner voting, and his forthcoming appearance at Strasbourg. On page 9 of his speech he stated:
In a judgment much anticipated on both sides of the Channel, the Court of Justice of the European Union (“CJEU”) has held that French restrictions on the eligibility of prisoners to vote are lawful under EU law.
At first glance, prisoner voting proponents may interpret the Supreme Court’s R (Chester) v Justice Secretarydecision (see Adam Wagner’s previous post) as a defeat for advancing prisoner voting rights in the UK. This blog post offers a different perspective. By comparing Chester to the seminal US Supreme Court case of Marbury v. Madison, we summarise that such proponents should take a step back and see the wood, rather than merely the trees. This is because Lord Mance’s Chester judgment offers human rights advocates, and therefore supporters of prisoner voting rights, an unequivocal foundation from which to defend future human rights claims.
Chester does not achieve the same ends as Marbury. Marbury established the institution of judicial review in the United States, against Congressional legislation. Chester does not disturb the supremacy of the UK Parliament. Comparison arises within the strategies of the leading judgments in each case. Chief Justice Marshall’s judgment in Marbury is celebrated not only for its conclusion, that the Constitution of the United States is the highest form of law and therefore “it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is”, but also for how it reached that conclusion.
The Government’s announcement that eleven local authorities across England would be taking part in voter ID pilots for the 2019 local elections was controversial. There is a heated debate as to whether citizens should have to provide photo identification before receiving their ballot at elections. For some, it is a straight-forward measure to avoid the risk of fraud. For others, it is a policy that, by design or inadvertently, leads to the disenfranchisement of certain groups.
This debate was not considered by the courts in the challenge to the legality of the pilot schemes brought by Mr Neil Coughlan, a former district councillor from Witham Essex. But the consequences of the decision of the Court of Appeal in R (Coughlan) v Minister for the Cabinet Office  EWCA Civ 723 could be profound for our electoral law.
Tovey & Ors v Ministry of Justice  EWHC 271 (QB) (18 February 2011) – read judgment.
In a case heard the day before Parliament debated whether it should amend the law preventing prisoners from voting, the High Court struck out a claim for compensation by a prisoner in respect of his disenfranchisement.
Although it was “not part of the court’s function to express any view as to the nature of legislative change”, this ruling confirmed that as a matter of English law, including the Human Rights Act 1998, a prisoner will not succeed before a court in England and Wales in any claim for damages or a declaration based on his disenfranchisement while serving his sentence. Continue reading →
Updated | The dust has hardly settled on the government’s decision to allow prisoners to vote when, with uncanny timing, the European Court of Human Rights has denied the Austrian government permission to appeal in a similar case involving prisoners’ voting rights.
The Strasbourg court has notified Austria that its request for referral of the case of Frodl v Austria to the Grand Chamber has been rejected. This is likely to have a significant impact on the UK’s implementation of the prisoner voting system, as the court in Frodl effectively ruled that the disenfranchisement of prisoners could only happen on rare occasions: namely, where a prisoner was detained as a result of the abuse of a public position or a threat to undermine the rule of law or democratic foundations. As I said in Monday’s post:
I posted recently on the ongoing saga surrounding the UK’s implementation of the Hirst No. 2 case, in which the European Court of Human Rights found that the UK’s blanket ban on prisoners voting was a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. The correspondence between the court and the UK Government is now available and I have reproduced it below.
In short, the UK previously had until 11 October 2011 to “introduce legislative proposals” to end the ban. But it has now been given a reprieve as a result of seeking to intervene in another case, Scoppola v Italy (No. 3) (available in French, English press release here), which is going to the court’s Grand Chamber This is another prisoner voting case.
The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that states must allow for at least some prisoners to vote, but that states have a wide discretion as to deciding which prisoners. This amounts to a retreat on prisoner votes, but certainly no surrender. As I predicted, the court reaffirmed the principles set out in Hirst No. 2, that an automatic and indiscriminate bans breach the European Convention on Human Rights, but also reaffirmed that it was up to states to decide how to remove those indiscriminate bans.
I have compared the prisoner voting issue to a ping-pong ball in a wind tunnel. Today’s ruling means that the ball is now back on the UK’s side of the table.
Although Scoppola is a case which arose in Italy, the decision is of critical important to the UK for two reasons. First, the Court has made clear to the UK Government that it now has six months from today to bring forth legislative proposals which will end the blanket disenfranchisement of prisoners – see the Court’s helpful press release which explains the effect on the UK. Secondly, the Grand Chamber has now clarified the basic outline of how it expects states to comply with the original prisoner votes ruling, also of the Grand Chamber, in Hirst No. 2. For the full background, see my post from last week or Joshua Rozenberg’s excellent article on Guardian.co.uk.
Scotland’s civil appeal court, the Inner House of the Court of Session, has refused a prisoner’s appeal for damages resulting from an alleged failure to afford him a reasonable opportunity to rehabilitate himself during his extended sentence.
Justice for Families Ltd v Secretary of State for Justice  EWCA Civ 1477 – read judgment
An application for habeas corpus by a pressure group was completely “hopeless” and “entirely misconceived”. The appellant’s challenge to the decision of the judge below was equally devoid of merit. Third party applications are only appropriate where the prisoner is incommunicado or where the impediment preventing the prisoner from acting is ignorance or disability. It was entirely inappropriate in these circumstances, where the prisoner had been represented by counsel throughout the proceedings which resulted in her imprisonment, or where her detention had already ended before the application for habeas corpus was made.
The principle of “habeas corpus”
The right of a stranger to apply for habeas corpus is a rather singular thing since it does not depend on that third party to be instructed by the prisoner on behalf of whom the application is being made, nor even on the knowledge of the prisoner that someone has decided to act in his/her interest in such a way.
I recently compared the prisoner votes issue to a ping-pong ball in a wind tunnel. The latest twist in the saga is that the UK government is seeking to overturn the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling in Hirst No. 2. This is certainly a daring tactic, given that the ruling by the Grand Chamber is not open to appeal.
To set out the very basic background (again), in the 2005 decision of Hirst (No. 2),the Grand Chamber of the European Court held the UK’s blanket ban on prisoners voting is in breach of the electoral right under Article 1 of Protocol 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The court ruled that the ban was a “general, automatic and indiscriminate restriction on a vitally important Convention right“. Article 46 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which the UK signed up to, obliges it to “abide by the final judgment” of the European Court of Human Rights. So in theory, it should already complied with the judgment.
The Deputy Prime Minister has said that he cannot declare the Coalition Government’s House of Lords Reform Bill as compatible with the Human Rights Act, as prisoners will be banned from voting for Lords if the bill becomes law.
278… the Deputy Prime Minister has said that he is unable to sign a statement under section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998. The Government wishes Parliament to proceed with the Bill notwithstanding that such a statement of compatibility cannot be made.
The reason that the Bill will not be compatible with the ECHR is that perennial headache for this (and indeed the last) Government, prisoner votes. As the explanatory notes explain:
Cossey, R (on the application of) v Secretary of State for Justice  EWHC 3029 (Admin) – read judgment
The High Court has dismissed an “absolutely meritless” claim by a prisoner that, in serving the non-tariff part of his sentence, he should be afforded all the Convention rights enjoyed by prisoners on remand or those serving time for civil offences such as contempt of court. As he had been deprived of the full panoply of rights, he said, he was a victim of discrimination contrary to Article 14.
This, said Mostyn J, was
The sort of claim that gives the Convention, incorporated into our domestic law by the Human Rights Act 1998, a bad name and which furnishes its critics with ammunition to shoot it down.
Were the key architect of the Convention, Lord Kilmuir, alive today, continued the judge, “he would be amazed to be told that a claim for violation of Article 14 was being advanced on the facts of this case.” Continue reading →
Adam Wagner has compared the prisoner voting issue to a ping-pong ball in a wind tunnel, noting that ‘the ball is now back on the UK’s side of the table’. Indeed, the UK must still allow at least some prisoners the vote, as required by the 2005 judgment in Hirst v UK (No.2) and the 2010 judgment in Greens & MT v UK. Over at EJIL: Talk!, Marko Milanovic rightly accounts for the unholy mix of law and (inter)national politics that has generated the Grand Chamber’s unprincipled judgment. Indeed, as Carl Gardner suggests on the Head of Legal blog all that logically remains of the Hirst judgment is that automatic disenfranchisement of prisoners that are sentenced for less than 3 years (probably) breaches the convention.
Update | TheVoting Eligibility (Prisoners) Draft Bill has been released. It will not be put straight before Parliament for a vote; rather, it will be put to a Committee of both Houses for full Parliamentary scrutiny which could propose amendments, then back to the Government which will “reflect on its recommendations” and subsequently introduce a bill. There is no timetable set out for this process, but I imagine the Council of Europe may want a timetable imposed.
The bill sets out three options:
A ban for prisoners sentenced to 4 years or more.
A ban for prisoners sentenced to more than 6 months.
A ban for all convicted prisoners – a restatement of the existing ban.
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