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Judges against being given discretion on prisoner voting rights

8 January 2018

Scotland's judges are against being given discretion on whether a prisoner should be allowed voting rights, the Lord President has told a Holyrood Committee.

Lord Carloway was responding by letter to the Equalities & Human Rights Committee, which is undertaking an inquiry into prisoner voting rights and had asked him to comment on a suggestion that a judge or sheriff might be empowered to decide in a particular case, as part of the sentencing process, whether a person being sentenced to a prison term should be allowed to retain the right to vote.

The Lord President said he had consulted the senior judiciary, and "All are opposed to such a course of action." The "major problem of principle" was that it was "primarily a matter for Parliament, which is best placed, adter due democratic consultation, to decide... when and how someone may be deprived of their right to elect a parliamentarian". Unelected judges should not invent the rules, but only determine whether they had been lawfully applied.

Drawing a comparison with the sex offender register, Lord Carloway suggested that the Parliament could state that when a person was sentenced to a particular term, they should lose their right to vote for that, or an extended,or shorter period. "Rather like the sex offender 'register' provisions, such a provision might operate automatically on sentencing and this would be clear to both the prisoner and the prison authorities."

In a separate response, Victim Support Scotland stated: "Whether the ban remains or is removed, in part, or in full, we believe there needs to be explicit and readily available public information on punishment processes. Any changes need to occur alongside awareness campaigns on what the principal purpose of incarceration sets to achieve. We agree that prisoner voting should be seen in the wider context of equalities and human rights, but with the caveat that victims remain paramount to any discussions on legislative changes."

The Scottish Government's consultation on reforming electoral arrangements, which includes possible extensions to the franchise, simply refers to the committee's inquiry without putting forward any proposals of its own. The consultation closes on 12 March 2018.

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