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Strasbourg deluged by 2,500 applications from UK prisoners

24 November 2010

The European Court of Human Rights has received 2,500 applications from convicted prisoners in the UK claiming their human rights have been breached because they are banned from voting in elections.

Earlier this month prime minister David Cameron accepted that the UK’s blanket ban would have to be lifted, while admitting this made him “furious”.

Giving judgment this week in the test case of Greens and MT v the UK (applications nos. 60041/08 and 60054/08), the ECtHR said: “As the court has already indicated, the prevailing situation has given rise to the lodging of numerous subsequent well-founded applications.

“There are currently approximately 2,500 applications in which a similar complaint is made, around 1,500 of which have been registered and are awaiting a decision.

“The number continues to grow, and with each relevant election which passes in the absence of amended legislation there is the potential for numerous new cases to be lodged.

“According to statistics submitted by EHRC, there are approximately 70,000 serving prisoners in the United Kingdom at any one time, all of whom are potential applicants.”

The ECtHR said the UK’s continuing failure to introduce legislation was “not only an aggravating factor” in terms of its responsibility for past and present human rights breaches, but also represented “a threat to the future effectiveness of the Convention machinery”.

The Strasbourg court gave the UK government a six-month deadline from the date its current judgment becomes final to introduce legislation bringing its law in line with the Convention.

It said the UK had failed to comply with its earlier Grand Chamber judgment in Hirst v UK (application no. 74025/01), which also found that the UK had violated article 3 of protocol 1.

The article says only that parties to the Convention should “undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature”.

Both prisoners in the latest case were at Peterhead prison in Scotland and posted voter registration forms to the electoral registration officer for Grampian. Their applications were refused.

In the meantime the court said it would “discontinue its examination” of all similar applications and strike them out if the UK government complied. It rejected a claim by the prisoners for “an unspecified sum” in respect of non-pecuniary damages.

The court did not specify exactly what steps the UK government should take to comply with the Convention.

“As the court emphasised in Hirst, there are numerous ways of organising and running electoral systems and a wealth of differences, inter alia, in historical development, cultural diversity and political thought within Europe which it is for each contracting state to mould into their own democratic vision.”

The Equality and Human Rights Commisson, which intervened in the case, said the ruling “underlines the necessity” for the UK to implement Strasbourg’s decisions.

“We submitted that the UK government should enforce judgments of the ECtHR expeditiously and effectively and that failure to do so undermines human rights and democratic principles,” a spokesman said.

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