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Votes for all prisoners is the only legal option, government is warned

8 November 2010

Limiting prisoners’ voting rights based on the severity of the crime is illegal, lawyers have warned.

After accepting that prisoners must be given the vote in line with the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling, the coalition government now faces growing pressure to block the most serious offenders from the legislation.

Prime minister David Cameron, who said the prospect of giving any prisoner a vote makes him “physically ill”, estimates the legal action lodged by prisoners against the government has so far cost taxpayers £160m.

But solicitors firm Leigh Day, which has been acting for more than 550 serving prisoners in applications to the European Court of Human Rights, has warned that further legal challenges would be “inevitable” if the government attempts to limit the number of prisoners eligible to vote.

Sean Humber, a solicitor in Leigh Day’s human rights department, said: “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.

“The government’s announcement to allow prisoners to vote is an important development. However, it will be important to critically examine the government’s detailed proposals when they are published,” he added.

The coalition government has blamed the previous Labour government for failing to resolve the issue, which was triggered by the 2005 ECtHR ruling in Hirst v United Kingdom that denying prisoners the right to vote was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Following the judgment, the previous government held two public consultations setting out options for a change in legislation, including limiting those eligible for the vote.

Describing this as a delaying tactic, Leigh Day threatened immediate legal action if the coalition tried to implement the same plan, adding: “The government should have taken the necessary steps to allow prisoners to vote at the last general election. Their failure to do so means that it is appropriate for serving prisoners such as our clients to seek compensation for the breach of their human rights. The government’s recent announcement further strengthens our clients’ claims.”

At Prime Minister’s Questions last Wednesday, Cameron said: “It makes me physically ill even to contemplate having to give the vote to anyone who is in prison. Frankly, when people commit a crime and go to prison, they should lose their rights, including the right to vote. But we are in a situation that I am afraid we have to deal with.

“Are we going to delay and delay and waste another £160m of taxpayers’ money, or are we going to take difficult action and explain it to the British public as best we can? I do not think that we have a choice if we are to do the right thing and save the exchequer money.”

When he was shadow justice secretary, the current Attorney General Dominic Grieve described the prospect of giving prisoners the vote as “ludicrous”.

In parliament last week, Mark Harper, the Conservative secretary for constitutional reform, said: “This is not a choice; it is a legal obligation,” confirming the discussion on “how” to implement the changes were still taking place.

Sadiq Khan, shadow justice secretary, has also spoken out against the ECtHR’s ruling.

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