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May elections human rights breach warning

24 November 2006

A QC has warned that the Scottish Parliament could face legal challenges from convicted prisoners over their right to vote in the May elections.

Aidan O'Neill - who represents William Smith, a prisoner at Glenochil jail in Clackmannanshire - told the Registration Appeal Court yesterday that Scotland's 7,000 or so prisoners could take legal action following a ruling last year by the European Court of Human Rights.

The court ruled that the human rights of John Hirst, who is serving a life sentence for manslaughter, were breached by Britain's blanket ban on prisoners voting and called for a review of UK voting rights.

Mr O'Neill asked the appeal court judges to make a declaration that denying prisoners the right to vote was incompatible with the convention of human rights. He also warned that interdicts might be sought by prisoners stopping the May elections because Scottish ministers were allowing it to go ahead despite its franchise incompatibility with human rights.

Smith had written to his electoral registration officer in February 2003 asking to vote in the parliamentary elections of that year. When he revealed that he was a convicted prisoner, he was told he was ineligible to vote under the Representation of the People Act.

He appealed against this, but lost the case which was then sent to the Registration Appeal Court.

Following the European ruling on the John Hirst case, the UK government had produced an action plan, but this was geared towards UK elections and not the timetable for the Holyrood May voting. Mr O'Neill said the review could be fast-tracked in order to meet the May deadline.

Counsel for the Scottish Secretary Lorna Drummond told the court that the European ruling in the Hirst case had been accepted by the Secretary of State, but that the sheriff had been right to refuse Smith's appeal.

She has argued that it was not up to the court to declare incompatibility with human rights.

A ruling on the case is expected at a later date.