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Attorney General calls for subsidiary principle to be strengthened

'Once in a generation' chance to reform Strasbourg

1 November 2011

The Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, has said there was no question of the UK withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights, but the principle of subsidiarity needed to be strengthened.

In a speech at Lincoln’s Inn last week Grieve also said that he will go to the European Court of Human Rights in person to argue that the UK should be allowed to continue its practice of denying prisoners the vote.

The UK government takes over the chairmanship of the Council of Europe next month, which Grieve said was a “once in a generation opportunity” to reform the Strasbourg court.

Grieve said the principle meant that member states should have the primary responsibility for guaranteeing and protecting human rights at a national level.

“The principle is well-established and has been recognised by the Council of Europe in both the Interlaken and Izmir declarations on reform of the court, as well as in the case law of the Strasbourg court,” he said.

However, the Attorney General said the ECtHR did not always “follow its own advice”.

He went on: “Prisoner voting is a good example. On the one hand the court says there is a wide margin of appreciation afforded to member states to decide on the enfranchisement of prisoners, recognising that there are numerous ways to organise electoral systems reflecting the differing political traditions across Europe.

“But on the other hand, as we can see in cases such as Frodl v Austria and Scoppola v Italy, the court seeks to set down specific rules about the circumstances in which prisoners can be disenfranchised.

“It is no wonder – given these conflicting messages – that it is difficult to design a system in the UK which is compatible with the Convention rights.”

Grieve said the UK was intervening in the Scoppola case and he would personally go to Strasbourg to plead the matter.

He said that the principle of subsidiarity required the court to accept that, on issues of social policy such as prisoner voting, “where strong, opposing reasonable views may be held and where parliament has fully debated the issue”, the decision on the “appropriate system of disenfranchisement” should be for parliament.

Grieve said the ECtHR should not interfere with that decision “unless it is manifestly without reasonable foundation”.

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Police & Prisons