Chester v Secretary of State for Justice & Anor  EWCA Civ 1439 (17 December 2010) – Read judgment
The Court of Appeal has rejected a claim by a man convicted of raping and murdering a seven-year-old girl that the court should grant him the right to vote. Meanwhile, following the judgment the government has announced that it plans to allow all prisoners less than four years to vote.
Mr Chester’s case is interesting from a constitutional perspective, although the decision is not too surprising, as I will explain. But it does highlight the complex and sometimes unsatisfactory manner in which human rights are protected in the UK.
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.
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amended to remove part of a quote from the Ministry of Justice, who had initially said that “Disenfranchisement is an outdated, disproportionate punishment which has no place in a modern prison system with a renewed emphasis on rehabilitation and resettlement”. This line has been replaced by a policy-neutral quote.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.
Welcome back to the UK Human Rights Roundup, your regular springtime blossom of human rights news and views. The full list of links can be found here. You can find previous roundups here. Links compiled by Adam Wagner, post by Celia Rooney.
This week, a challenge to the legal aid reforms by the Howard League for Penal Reform is rejected, while campaigners seeking an inquiry into the action of British soldiers in Malaya in 1948 face similar disappointment. Meanwhile, some of the most senior judges in the UK give their views on the role of the judiciary today.
The clock is ticking again on prisoner votes. The European Court of Human Rights has rejected the UK government’s latest appeal in the long-running saga.
The UK had attempted to appeal the recent decision in Greens and M.T. v. the United Kingdom. The full background can be found in my previous post, in which I predicted that the European court would find the UK’s appeal unappealing. It has, and the result is that the UK has just under six months to remove the blanket ban on prisoners voting.
Incidentally, Rosalind’s post from earlier today relates to a separate but also interesting Scottish court judgment on prisoner votes.
Those who want change should have to make the case for it, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC challenged her fellow panellists, at a recent event jointly organised by the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law and British Institute of International and Comparative Law, and hosted by Bindmans. The panel was one of the most stimulating contributions of the year to the debate over the proposed repeal of the Human Rights Act and its replacement with a British Bill of Rights, featuring contributions from three members of the 2012 Commission on a Bill of Rights, a number of comparative perspectives including one from Australia, and even a call for what appears to be a written constitution.
Professor Jeffrey Jowell gave some preliminary remarks to set the scene for the panel discussion. He noted that the Bingham Centre had not adopted any particular position on the proposed repeal of the Human Rights Act (HRA) and its subsequent replacement with a British Bill of Rights, since the Conservative Government had not yet published its proposals. He then quoted a recent report that the Government was planning to publish its consultation paper within the next two months, and then seek to legislate rapidly to get the British Bill of Rights on to the statute books by the end of next summer. Given this, he felt that the time was therefore right to hear a spectrum of views on the subject to assist the Bingham Centre in forming its position. Continue reading →
The Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill today published its report – you can read it in full here (PDF/HTML/conclusions). I gave evidence to the committee a few weeks ago – you can watch again here.
The report strongly recommends enacting legislation so that ” all prisoners serving sentences of 12 months or less should be entitled to vote in all UK parliamentary, local and European elections”. The recommendation could not be more emphatic, with the committee concluding, amongst other things:
With possibly thousands of people prevented from voting in the 2010 General Election, can those who were locked out claim for compensation for breach of their human rights, and how much are they likely to receive?
The legal basis:Article 1 of Protocol 3 to the European Convention on Human Rights, the duty on States to hold free and fair elections, has been receiving more than its usual share of attention. Under Section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998, it is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way which is incompatible with a convention right. Under Section 7,a person may bring proceedings against a public authority which has acted unlawfully. One of the potential remedies is compensation.
How many: It appears that thousands of voters may have been prevented from voting as polling stations were unable to handle the amount of people who arrived in the last few hours before voting closed at 10pm. For example, The Guardian reports that “In Chester more than 600 people were unable to vote because the electoral list had not been updated and Labour won on a majority of 549“and in Hackney “The council estimated that 270 voters were turned away at four polling stations in the south of the borough.” In Sheffield Hallam “students tried to prevent ballot boxes being taken to the count after up to 500 voters were turned away”.
How much: We posted on Friday on an article by Lord Pannick, a human rights barrister, in which he said that prisoners denied the right to vote (a separate but certainly comparable issue to those who were turned away) may be entitled to awards “in the region of £750 and possibly more”. Geoffrey Robertson QC, also a well known human rights barrister, told the BBC that spurned voters may be entitled to “at least £750”.
However, it is not clear where either lawyer derived the £750 figure from. Continue reading →
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?
Welcome back to the UK Human Rights Roundup, your weekly bulletin of human rights news. The full list of links can be found here. You can also find our table of human rights cases here and previous roundups here.
UPDATED: Thank you to all the those who pointed out my errors in this post – hopefully you will now find they are corrected.
In the news
A few fairly major issues to chew over this week: we have commentary on the controversial Sarah Catt abortion case, responses to the Strasbourg decision on indefinite prison sentences in the UK, and more additions to the debate about religion and human rights, among other things.
With an election on
the horizon, a coalition of 29 women and human rights organisation has published
a manifesto for women and girls. Their stated goals are to “end violence
against women and girls”; “secure women’s equal representation in politics”; “promote
equality in the workplace and in the home”; “invest in public services”; and “lift
women and children out of poverty”. To
achieve these goals, they propose measures including a new ‘Violence Against
Women and Girls’ bill to lay before Parliament; funding for high-quality sex
and relationships education; improvements to the criminal justice system
regarding allegations of rape and sexual assault; equal pay; increased maternity
pay and maternity allowances; an end to pregnancy discrimination; and a strengthening
of the law on sexual harassment at work, creating a duty on employers to
prevent harassment from occurring. The manifesto is available here.
against internet intermediaries and ‘surveillance capitalism’ continues this
week. Amnesty International have released a report entitled ‘Surveillance Giants’,
which analyses in detail the human rights threats posed by Facebook, Google,
and other technology corporations. The report is available here. Meanwhile,
in the courts, Singh LJ granted Ed Bridges permission to appeal the facial
recognition judicial review which he lost in September, noting that Mr Bridges’
appeal had a reasonable prospect of success.
Not all deaths in custody mandate an Article 2 inquest (see R (Tainton) v HM Senior Coroner for Preston and West Lancashire  EWHC 1396 (Admin); R (Tyrell) v HM Senior Coroner for County Durham and Darlington  EWHC 1892 (Admin)). An Article 2-compliant inquest must be undertaken when there has been an arguable breach of the substantive obligation to protect life. When a death occurs in custody, Article 2 will be engaged if there have been any arguable failings in the care provided.
The issues relating to imprisonment of individuals with mental health problems in the UK has attracted considerable attention, as the number of self-inflicted deaths has risen to the highest number since records began in 1978. With a rate of one prison suicide every three days, the director of the Howard League described the current rate as having reached “epidemic proportions”. The steady rise of deaths in custody has prompted a seriesofinquiries in recent years, and has drawn scrutiny from UN bodies and Special Procedures, and more recently, UN Member States as part of a periodic review of its human rights performance. However, despite this, little progress has been made.
In view of this reality, the Joint Committee on Human Rights launched an inquiry into mental health and deaths in prison in 2016 in order to determine whether a human rights based approach can help to prevent deaths in prison of individuals with mental health conditions i.e. one that satisfies acceptable standards as laid down by national and international human rights law, and recognises the particular position of vulnerability in which detainees are placed. The inquiry specifically looked at why previous recommendations had not been implemented. To this end, the Committee received both oral and written evidence from authors of the various domestic inquiry reports and individuals whose lives have been directly affected by the issue, including relatives of individuals who had committed suicide in prisons.
However, the inquiry was unexpectedly cut short as a result of the decision to call a snap election.
The refusal to allow a Scottish prisoner to purchase a laptop for use in prison has been successfully challenged in the Outer House of the Court of Session. However, the Outer House decision focused on the flawed decision making process as opposed to the substantive conclusion reached by prison authorities.
by Fraser Simpson
In 2001, the petitioner was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. Whilst in prison, the petitioner, Mr Beggs, made a number of requests to be allowed to purchase a laptop. Mr Beggs intended for this laptop to be used to prepare responses to his lawyers in connection to a number of civil and criminal court actions in which he was involved. Additionally, Mr Beggs intended for the laptop to be used for educational purposes. However, each request made by Mr Beggs was refused.
This issue had been raised as early as 2002. The Scottish Prison Complaints Commissioner had stated that Mr Beggs “is a highly educated, intelligent man whose literacy is excellent”. The formal recommendations stemming from the Commissioner’s consideration of the matter was that Mr Beggs should be provided with a word processor and a printer to assist with his legal casework. However, no such access was forthcoming. As a result, Mr Beggs raised a first set of judicial review proceedings. Such proceedings were halted prior to the first hearing after the authorities agreed to provide computer facilities and a printer. This arrangement between Mr Beggs and the authorities at HMP Peterhead did not operate smoothly. Mr Beggs was allowed to access a communal laptop provided by the prison. However, another prisoner was often using this laptop. As a result, Mr Beggs made a request for permissions to have his own personal laptop.
Scottish Policy on personal laptops
The Governors and Managers Action Notices 84A of 1998 and 15A of 1999 (“GMA 1998” and “GMA 1999”) are the relevant policy documents covering prisoner ownership of computers/word processors. Under GMA 1998 there was a prohibition on prisoners in closed establishments from owning such devices (which would include laptops). However, GMA 1999 relaxed this position and allowed a prisoner to own a laptop in “exceptional cases” if “compelling reasons” had been shown. Additionally, there was the need to demonstrate that any security concerns could be adequately addressed.
This scheme for ownership of laptops operated separately from the various schemes allowing prisoners to access prison-owned laptops. The relevant protocol was most recently updated in March 2013. It only afforded prisoners access for legal work and required completion of a written application form. Access would not be provided unless the individual could show “real prejudice to his case” if access were restricted. Additionally, resources were limited as prisons only owned a certain number of laptops (which cost £1,000 to purchase). All in all, the scheme for accessing prison owned laptops was very restrictive and of little practical use.
Requests for a laptop
Mr Beggs initial request to the governor of HMP Peterhead was refused. Whilst recognising that “compelling circumstances” under GMA 1999 existed to depart from the general ban of laptops contained in GMA 1998, the governor refused the request due to the fact that the protocol for accessing communal computer equipment adequately met Mr Beggs’ needs.
Mr Beggs made a number of similar requests following this initial refusal. All requests were unsuccessful and often referenced the fact that the ability to access a communal laptop was sufficient.
In March 2014, having been moved to HMP Edinburgh, the petitioner made another request to be allowed a laptop. Again, he emphasised that a laptop was necessary to allow him manage the vast amount of legal documents that had amassed from various legal actions and also to allow him to further his academic interests. The governor of HMP Edinburgh refused this request. This time, Mr Beggs’ request was refused due to a failure to show that “exceptional circumstances” justifying the provision of a laptop existed as required under GMA 1999. The governor also noted that there were other individuals in the prison who were able to manage their cases without utilising a laptop.
It is this decision of March 2014 that the petitioner sought to have judicially reviewed.
Outer House Decision
Lord Malcolm began his decision by considering the relevant policy documents. As discussed above, GMA 1998 and 1999 established a system that required the individual to show “compelling circumstances” to justify departing from the general ban on prisoners in closed establishments owning laptops and that the relevant security concerns could be addressed. Lord Malcolm noted that only one individual had previously applied for a personal laptop, namely the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombings, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi. he had been allowed a laptop. Accordingly, it was clear that the relevant security concerns could be addressed.
Further, the existence of prison-owned laptops was irrelevant. The protocol allowing access to communal laptops existed independently of the scheme for personal laptops under GMA 1998 and 1999. The “very restrictive” prison laptop protocol could not be relied upon as a justification for refusing a personal laptop (despite the fact that such reasoning had been adopted by numerous decision makers in response to Mr Beggs’ previous requests prior to March 2014).
In considering the specific refusal reviewed by Mr Beggs, that of March 2014, Lord Malcolm noted that the governor of HMP Edinburgh merely stated that the petitioner’s circumstances were not “exceptional” and therefore there was no need to provide a personal laptop. But Lord Malcolm, whilst not explicitly disagreeing with the conclusion, empathised with Mr Beggs. Due to a number of factors, including the early positive response of the Scottish Prisons Complaints Commissioner, the undertaking agreed in the context of the first judicial review proceedings, and the initial decision of the governor of HMP Peterhead that “compelling circumstances” existed, Mr Beggs could reasonably expect his position to be considered “exceptional”. A decision that all of the above, amongst other considerations, did not amount to “compelling circumstances” should be be afforded “a more considered, detailed, and reasoned response than anything provided [to Mr Beggs] so far”.
As a result, Lord Malcolm reduced the decision of March 2014 and all subsequent decisions.
Ultimately, this decision of the Outer House relates purely to the decision making process adopted by the prison authorities. It’s easy to have sympathy with Mr Beggs. Despite previous assurances and, at first glance, clear “exceptional circumstances” he was repeatedly refused permission to buy his own personal laptop. These refusals included no reasons which effectively prevented Mr Beggs from being able to assess the height of the hurdle he had to clear in order to be successful.
The result of this judgment is that the governor of HMP Edinburgh will have to consider Mr Begg’s request afresh. In considering the substantive question of whether Mr Begg’s should be allowed a laptop there appears a number of factors in favour of granting permission. First, Mr Beggs has always offered to pay for the laptop himself. Instead of costing the authorities money, this would actually result in less reliance being placed on the limited number of communal laptops provided by the prison. Secondly, there is clearly no insurmountable issues regarding security; Mr al-Megrahi was provided a laptop, and numerous prisoners use communal laptops under the relevant protocol whilst in closed establishments. Finally, it may appear inconsistent to allow prisoners to enjoy Xboxes and PlayStations, which can also potentially access wifi and are explicitly permitted, whilst refusing to allow Mr Beggs to purchase a laptop for legal and educational purposes.
R (on the application of Chester) (Appellant) v Secretary of State for Justice (Respondent), McGeoch (AP) (Appellant) v The Lord President of the Council and another (Respondents) (Scotland)  UKSC 63 – read judgment / press summary
The Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling recently told The Spectator that he wants “to see our Supreme Court being supreme again“. In light of his respect for the court, he should read today’s judgment on prisoner votes very carefully indeed, as should David Cameron who has already endorsed the decision as a “great victory for common sense”.
The Supreme Court dismissed two claims by prisoners who argued their European Convention (Chester) and European Union (McGeogh) rights were being breached because they weren’t allowed to vote in various elections. I won’t summarise the detail of their arguments, which can be found in our previous posts on the Court of Appeal and Scottish Outer House Court of Session decisions.
We will aim to cover the substance of the decisions in due course. But what I find really interesting was the Justices’ views on the European Court’s various decisions on prisoner votes, which the Government argued were poorly reasoned.
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