News In Focus
Government called on to respect Brighton principle over prisoner votes
23 May 2012
The UK Government has six months to take steps to lift the blanket ban on prison inmates voting in election, after a decision of the European Court of Human Rights yesterday affirming its previous ruling that automatic disenfranchisement is incompatible with the European Convention.
In the new decision, Scoppola v Italy (No 3), the court however accepted an argument for the UK Government, which intervened in the case, that each State has a wide discretion as to how it regulates the ban, both as regards the types of offence that should result in the loss of the vote and as to whether disenfranchisement should be ordered by a judge in an individual case or should result from general application of a law.
The case concerned Mr Scoppola’s loss of the vote following his criminal conviction for killing his wife and wounding one of his sons. The court held, by a majority, that there had been no violation of article 3 of Protocol No 1 (right to free elections) to the Convention. Under Italian law only prisoners convicted of certain offences against the state or the judicial system, or sentenced to at least three years’ imprisonment, lost the right to vote. There was, therefore, no general, automatic, indiscriminate measure of the kind that led the court to find a violation in the Hirst case brought against the UK.
The court previously granted the UK an extension of time to introduce legislation, so that the six month period previously considered appropriate would run from the date of the Scoppola judgment. If the Government complies with this timeframe, the court will proceed to strike out all the similar pending cases by UK prisoners against the Government.
Calling on the UK Government to now implement its obligation in line with its position at the recent Brighton summit, Professor Alan Miller, chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, said the decision provided guidance on how the UK can meet its legal obligations to ensure restrictions on the right to vote are proportionate.
He commented: "A move away from a blanket ban on prisoner voting would bring the UK into line the overwhelming majority of other European countries, and many others around the world. The only countries where all convicted prisoners serving prison sentences of the right to vote are disenfranchised are the UK, Armenia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, and Russia.
"As recognised by the UK Government at the recent Brighton Conference on the future of the European Court, the key to the effective functioning of the European Court is national implementation of the Convention and execution of judgements. The UK now has to put this principle into practice. The UK Government has the obligation to introduce and Parliament the responsibility to enact legislation which will allow the UK to meet its legal obligations."
Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "People are sent to prison to lose their liberty, not their identity. The UK’s outdated ban on sentenced prisoners voting, based on the 19th century concept of civic death, has no place in a modern democracy and is legally and morally unsustainable."