Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Prisoners’ Voting Rights: Supreme Court judgement

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The decision of the UK Supreme Court on Prisoners’ voting rights, published on 16 October 2013, seems to me to be rather more nuanced than much of the media coverage I have read and heard.

The case which reached the Supreme Court involved two appeals, one from England  (Chester) and one from Scotland (McKeoch). Only the Chester case invoked the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998. Both cases also raised a question of EU law.

The issue under EU law arose from the focus in the EU on the core concerns of ensuring equal treatment between EU citizens residing in Member States other than that of their nationality, and so safeguarding freedom of movement within the EU. However, eligibility to vote in Member States is basically a matter for national legislatures, and a matter for each individual legislature to determine. In any event, the EU legal principle of non-discrimination would still not be engaged. Convicted prisoners serving their sentence are not in a comparable position to persons not in prison. Thus, in both cases, the Supreme Court held that EU law did not apply.

As regards the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998, the Supreme Court noted that in a series of cases (Hirst (No 2) v UK, Greens v UK and Scoppola v Italy) the European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”) had held that a blanket prohibition of this nature is an indiscriminate restriction on a vitally important right and, as such, incompatible with Article 3 of Protocol No 1, the duty to hold free and fair elections.

Under the HRA, the Supreme Court is required to “take into account” decisions of the ECtHR, not necessarily to follow them. This enables the national courts to engage in a constructive dialogue with the ECtHR. However, the prohibition on prisoner voting in the UK has now been considered by the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR twice and, on each occasion, found to be incompatible with Article 3 Protocol 1. In these circumstances, it would have to involve some truly fundamental principle of law or the most egregious oversight or misunderstanding before it could be appropriate for the Supreme Court to refuse to follow Grand Chamber decisions of the ECtHR. The ban on prisoner voting is not, in the Supreme Court’s view, a fundamental principle of law in the UK, and the circumstances do not justify a departure from the ECtHR’s caselaw.

Thus contrary to some reporting, the Supreme Court has upheld the ECtHR’s view  that the UK’s blanket ban on voting rights is incompatible with the European Convention. The Supreme Court did not issue a declaration of incompatibility, however, because that is a discretionary remedy; the Court had already issued such a declaration; the Government was undertaking work to respond to the initial declaration; it was not for the Court to say how the Government should ultimately resolve the matter; and that therefore, being a discretionary remedy, the Court would not exercise its discretion in this case.

So the ball is still very much in the Government’s court.

The full judgement of the Supreme Court and a press release prepared by the Court are available at http://www.supremecourt.gov.uk/news/latest-judgments.html

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Written by lwtmp

October 17, 2013 at 3:50 pm

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