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Prisoners win human rights claim, but no damages, over voting rights

12 August 2014

Ten Scottish prisoners denied a vote in the 2009 European Parilament elections have won a declaration that their human rights were infringed, but no damages, in a judgment today from the European Court of Human Rights.

In the case, Firth and Others v United Kingdom, brought for the applicants by Coatbridge solicitors Taylor & Kelly, a chamber held by five votes to two that there had been a violation of article 3 of Protocol 1 (A3P1) to the European Convention on Human Rights (right to free elections), but that the finding of a violation
constituted "sufficient just satisfaction for any non-pecuniary damage sustained by the applicants", and declined to award any compensation.

The court noted that in the 2010 case of Greens and MT v United Kingdom it had found the statutory ban on prisoners voting in those elections to be, by reason of its blanket character, incompatible with A3P1, and had indicated that some legislative amendment would be required to make the electoral law compatible with the Convention. While the UK had recently published a draft bill and a parliamentary joint committee had reported on it, the legislation remained unamended and the court concluded that there had been a violation of A3P1.

The judges who dissented did so on the basis that the applicants did not disclose the nature of their convictions or the length of their sentences, and given the case law on the subject, it was necessary for them to do so in order that the court could examine the proportionality of the interference with their human rights. Judge Wojtyczek called for the whole question to be examined again, as the case law "does not yield any clear answer as to what restrictions of voting rights are permissible and what restrictions are prohibited".

Regarding damages, the court followed earlier prisoner cases in ruling that it was sufficient for the prisoners to have the breach ot their rights recognised.

It also rejected the applicants’ claim for legal costs. Having indicated in Greens and MT that it would be unlikely to award costs in future follow-up cases, the court explained that the present applicants had only been required to cite A3P1, allege tthat they were imprisoned on the date of the election in question, and confirm that they had been otherwise eligible to vote in that election. The lodging of such an application was straightforward and did not require legal assistance, and the legal costs claimed had not been reasonably and necessarily incurred.

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