Prisoner voting ban breaches human rights, says Europe
News |14 October 2005
The law banning prisoners from voting in general elections will have to be reformed after the European Court ruled that it was a breach of human rights.
The Grand Chamber of the Strasbourg-based court of human rights voted by 12 to five that a blanket ban on prisoners voting was in breach of Protocol 1 of Art 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which guarantees “free elections at reasonable intervals…under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of legislature”. The case was brought by former prisoner John Hirst, who unanimously won his initial case last March, only for the government to appeal.
The judges held that the ban across all prisoners “irrespective of the length of their sentence and irrespective of the nature or gravity of their offence” was “general, automatic and indiscriminate” and went against the Convention. The UK government will now have to review the law, which dates back to the Middle Ages.
On response to the ruling, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer said: “The decision says we’ve got to look at our law again. It’s not saying every convicted prisoner should have the right to vote. They’re saying because we’ve got a blanket ban on every convicted prisoner that means Parliament hasn’t considered whether or not, for example, there should be gradations the more serious your prison sentence is.
“We will obviously do exactly what the judgment says, namely look at the law. It’s very difficult to say at this stage what the outcome would be. I think it’s pretty obvious that very serious offenders shouldn’t have the right to vote but then I find it quite difficult to work out what’s the basis upon which you could draw lines between one person who’s been sent to prison and another.”
The court’s ruling was welcomed by the Prison Reform Trust, which has been campaigning for prisoners to have voting rights for the past couple of years. Director Juliet Lyon said: “This judgment confirms that people are sent to prison to lose their liberty, not their identity or their citizenship. Prison has an important job to do to prevent the next victim and release people less, not more likely, to offend again.
“Prisoners should be given every opportunity to pay back for what they have done, take responsibility for their lives and make plans for effective resettlement and this should include maintaining their right to vote. It’s time to stop pretending that people in prison don’t exist.”