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More serious offenders can be banned from voting, Strasbourg rules

Court rejects UK argument to revisit earlier ruling that blanket ban breached prisoners' rights

23 May 2012

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People convicted of more serious offences can be banned from voting and judges do not need to make individual rulings, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has decided.The ECtHR rejected a demand by an Italian man convicted of murdering his wife and injuring one of his sons in a “violent family dispute” that his human rights were violated by not allowing being allowed to vote.

The court heard that Italy bans those sentenced to more than three years in prison from voting. It also bans them from voting for an unlimited time after their release, although they can apply for rehabilitation.

Ruling in Scoppola v Italy (application no. 126/05) the Grand Chamber held, by a majority of 16 to one, that the Italian system did not violate article 3 of protocol 1.

The court said that, in Italy, those convicted of minor offences, or more serious ones which attracted sentences of less than three years bearing in mind the circumstances of the crime and the offender’s personal situation, were not disenfranchised.

The Grand Chamber said it did not “fully share” reasoning in a previous case on voting rights, Frodl, which suggested that the intervention of a judge was essential.

“While the intervention of a judge is in principle likely to guarantee the proportionality of restrictions on prisoners’ voting rights, such restrictions will not necessarily be automatic, general and indiscriminate simply because they were not ordered by a judge.

“Indeed, the circumstances in which the right to vote is forfeited may be detailed in the law, making its application conditional on the nature or the gravity of the offence committed.”

However, the Strasbourg judges rejected an argument by the UK government, which intervened in the case, that it should rethink its ruling in Hirst that the UK’s blanket ban preventing all prisoners from voting was a violation of their human rights.

On behalf of the UK, Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General, had stressed the wide margin of appreciation afforded to contracting states in respect of the right to vote.

He argued that the ECtHR’s findings in Hirst were wrong and the court should revisit the decision.

Grieve said the Commons had debated the issue in February last year, and 234 MPs to 22 had voted against narrowing the scope of section 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 to allow some prisoners to vote.

The Grand Chamber said it did not appear that “anything has occurred or changed” at European or Convention levels that might lend support to the suggestion that the principles in Hirst should be reexamined.

On the contrary, they said analysis of international and European documents and comparative law findings “reveals the opposite trend, if anything – towards fewer restrictions on convicted prisoners’ voting rights”.

The Strasbourg judges reaffirmed the principles set out in Hirst, “in particular the fact that when disenfranchisement affects a group of people generally, automatically and indiscriminately, based solely on the fact that they are serving a prison sentence, irrespective of the length of the sentence and irrespective of the nature or gravity of their offence and their individual circumstances, it is not compatible with article 3 of protocol 1”.

Angela Patrick, director of human rights policy at JUSTICE, said: “We should welcome any prisoner who wants to participate in the democratic process. The time has come for parliament to act.”

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Police & Prisons