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Prisoner dismay at Government U-turn

Government considers limiting votes to prisoners serving a year or less

Photo: istock

20 January 2011

Prisoners have reacted with dismay at press reports suggesting a u-turn in government proposals to allow prisoners the vote.  If these reports are correct, this will inevitably leave the Government open to further legal challenge and claims for compensation.

Leigh Day & Co is currently acting for over 550 serving prisoners in applications to the European Court of Human Rights (“the ECtHR”).  These applications seek a declaration that the Government’s failure to allow the prisoners to vote at the recent General Election on 6th May 2010 was unlawful and request compensation for the breach of their human rights.

Until recently, the Government has repeatedly refused to take action on this issue.  This is despite a decision by the ECtHR as far back as October 2005 in Hirst v United Kingdom, which determined that the ban on all sentenced prisoners in the UK from voting was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights (“the ECHR”).

The Government’s prevarication has drawn intense criticism from both domestic and international quarters. The Joint Committee on Human Rights, the parliamentary body responsible for monitoring adherence to ECtHR judgements, published a damning report in March 2010 criticising the Government’s inaction.

The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, the Foreign Ministers of Member States, also repeatedly criticised the Government’s inaction and went as far as passing an interim resolution in December 2009 stating that, unless the Government acted quickly, there was a significant risk that the then upcoming General Election would be performed in a way that breached the ECHR.  Despite such criticism, the General Election went ahead without any action having been taken.

On 2 November 2010, in response to a question by Sadiq Khan, Shadow Justice Minister, in the House of Commons, Mark Harper, the Minister for Constitutional Reform, stated that:
“The Government accept, as did the previous Government, that as a result of the judgment of the Strasbourg Court in the Hirst case, there is a need to change the law.  This is not a choice; it is a legal obligation.  Ministers are currently considering how best to implement the judgment, and when the Government have made a decision the House will be the first to know”.

On 9 November 2010, the Committee of Ministers unanimously adopted a draft resolution with regard to the continuing failure of the UK government to comply with the judgment in Hirst.  The draft resolution stated:
“The United Kingdom must put an end to the practice of delaying full implementation of Strasbourg Court judgments with respect to politically sensitive issues, such as prisoners’ voting rights”.

On 23 November 2010, the ECtHR gave judgment in further cases against the Government (Greens and MT v UK).  The ECtHR found that the continuing failure by the Government to bring forward prisoner voting reform was a breach of the ECHR.  The ECtHR stated that it was a cause of regret and concern that, in the five years since their judgment in Hirst, no prisoner voting reform had been implemented by the UK government.  The ECtHR gave the Government a period of 6 months to resolve the matter.  It stated that in the meantime, it would "freeze" the many similar applications that it had received from other prisoners in the UK.

On 20 December 2010, the UK government announced their proposals for prisoner voting reform by way of written ministerial statement.  These proposals would only have allowed prisoners sentenced to less than four years the right to vote.  Prisoners serving more than four years would have remained barred from voting.  The Government indicated that it proposed to bring forward legislation with regard to these proposals during early 2011.

According to press reports, however, the Government is now considering even more limited proposals so that only prisoners serving a sentence of a year or less would be allowed the right to vote.

Sean Humber, a partner in the Human Rights Department of Leigh Day & Co stated:

“It seems doubtful that the Government’s previous proposals, allowing prisoners with a sentence of less than four years the vote, would have complied with ECtHR judgements.  However, it seems even clearer that the Government’s current proposals will not comply with these judgements.

The Government’s continuing prevarication is likely to be unlawful and costly.  The European Court of Human Rights' judgments are clear that all prisoners should be given the vote.  Any attempt to limit the right to vote to certain prisoners, while excluding others, is likely to be unlawful and almost inevitably lead to further legal challenge and claims for compensation.”

Leigh Day & Co has instructed David Lock, a leading human rights barrister at No5 Chambers, in this matter.

For further information, please contact Sean Humber or Benjamin Burrows on 020 7650 1293.

Information was correct at time of publishing. See terms and conditions for further details.

Information was correct at time of publishing. See terms and conditions for further details.

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