Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Archive for the ‘Chapter 2’ Category

Prisoners’ voting rights: recent developments

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For over a decade there has been a stand-off between the UK Government and the European Court of Human Rights on the question of whether prisoners should have a right to vote. The law in the UK is that they should not. The European Court of Human Rights took the view that a blanket ban was a denial of the right to vote provided for in the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Coalition Government got as far as publishing a draft Bill setting out a number of options for resolving the impasse (which included doing nothing) in 2013. I noted this in this blog in August 2014. Since then the issue has gone very quiet.

It appears that towards the end of 2016, the Government did issue an undertaking to the Council of Europe that is would do something by the end of 2017. Readers of this blog might be forgiven for not spotting that, in fact, the Government has recently done just that. Not a Bill, as many of us has been expecting, but in the form of a Statement to Parliament.

On November 2nd 2017, the Secretary of State for Justice said (in part):

[T]he Government has considered this issue carefully. We have decided to propose administrative changes to address the points raised in the 2005 judgment, while maintaining the bar on convicted prisoners in custody from voting.

First, we will make it clear to criminals when they are sentenced that while they are in prison this means they will lose the right to vote. This directly addresses a specific concern of the [in the original ECtHR] judgment that there was not sufficient clarity in confirming to offenders that they cannot vote in prison.

Second, we will amend guidance to address an anomaly in the current system, where offenders who are released back in the community on licence using an electronic tag under the Home Detention Curfew scheme can vote, but those who are in the community on Temporary Licence, cannot.

Release on Temporary Licence is a tool typically used to allow offenders to commute to employment in the community and so prepare themselves for their return to society. Reinstating the civic right of voting at this point is consistent with this approach…

These measures will see no changes to the criteria for temporary release, and no offenders will be granted release in order vote.

Our estimate is that these change to temporary licence will affect up to one hundred offenders at any one time and none of them will be able to vote from prison.

So, hey presto! No need for new legislation or amendment of the  Representation of the People Act 1983, but a simple change to Prison Service guidance.

The question this statement raises, of course, is whether this will be enough to satisfy the Council of Europe. My suspicion is that it may not, and that this will not resolve the issue once and for all. But it will probably be enough to kick the issue into the grass for a few more months – possibly longer.

The question of whether the European Court of Human Rights should have jurisdiction over this issue has recently been taken up in  book published by The Policy Exchange. In Human Rights and Political Wrongs: A new approach to Human Rights law Professor Sir Noel Malcolm argues that while Human Rights are very important, the way in which those rights have been interpreted and developed by the European Court of Human Rights has been inconsistent, and in some contexts has had the effect of undermining the authority of democratically elected governments. He argues that Human Rights should be limited to setting the boundaries of state power, and that decisions on whether particular policies or decisions are in breach of Human Rights should be done by domestic courts.

I see the publication of this book as the first step in putting the question of whether we have a separate British Bill of Rights back onto the domestic political agenda.

The Secretary of state’s statement is at https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/secretary-of-states-oral-statement-on-sentencing.

Professor Malcolm’s book can be downloaded free at https://policyexchange.org.uk/

 

 

 

 

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Constitutional conventions

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Constitutional conventions are an important features of the UK constitutional settlement. As the conventions are not exactly rules in the normal sense, it can on occasion be hard to know what they are and when they apply. In 2011, the then Coalition Government published a statement of Constitutional Conventions that had been drafted by the then Secretary to the Cabinet Sir Gus O’Donnell. Although the work had been started at the request of the former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown MP, it was thought to be particularly helpful to guide the Coalition Government, led by David Cameron and Nick Clegg. The book was published in October 2011.
Recent events in the House of Lords – where a draft Statutory Instrument (which was designed, as part of the Government’s Welfare Reform plan, to cut tax credits to those in work) were not approved by a majority of the Lords, despite being approved in the House of Commons – have thrown a new spotlight on these conventional rules. (They have also reopened the wider issue of the composition of the House of Lords and whether or not it should become an elected body.)
The specific issue – relating to the approval of the Statutory Instrument already approved in the House of Commons – is to be subject to a review led by Lord Strathclyde.
This incident emphasises the point that while the process of government usually ticks over in a fairly ordered way, the lack of detail written rules can on occasion lead to considerable controversy.

The Cabinet Manual setting out the main laws, rules and conventions affecting the conduct and operation of government is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/cabinet-manual

Written by lwtmp

October 28, 2015 at 6:19 pm

Prisoners’ Voting Rights: the view of the European Court of Justice

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I have written before about the stand off between the UK Government and the European Court of Human Rights on the question of whether the UK’s policy of prohibiting any prisoner from voting is compatible with the right to vote set out in the European Convention on Human Rights. (See 5 December 2012, 17 Oct 2013 and 21 Aug 2014.)

Although the issue has been seen largely as a matter arising from the European Convention on Human Rights, the issue also raises a question of European Law – namely whether a total ban on voting infringes the rights of citizens to vote in elections for the European Parliament.

The question was raised in the UK in the Supreme Court in 2013 as one concerning the equal treatment as between EU citizens residing in Member States other than that of their nationality. However, that principle would not apply to UK Citizens being detained in UK prisons. 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,  the Supreme Court held on that occasion that EU law did not apply.

The issue has come back to the European Court of Justice in a case involving France: Thierry Delvigne v Commune de Lesparre-Médoc and Préfet de la Gironde Case C-650/13. (October 2015) Here the ECJ held that a Member State can maintain an indefinite ban on voting in European Parliament elections for certain nationals of that State, although such a ban must, be proportionate. In the case, Delvigne was convicted in March 1988 of a serious crime and sentenced to a term of imprisonment of 12 years. Under the (French) law in effect at the time, this resulted in a total loss of his civic right to vote. However, after release he could apply to have his right to vote reinstated. He did this in 2012, but his application was rejected.

Despite the fact that French electoral law was amended in 1994 to limit any voting ban to 10 years, the ECJ held that the original law was proportionate and would be upheld. This result was reached following analysis of  Articles 39 and 49 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

There seem to be clear implications in this judgement for the UK. On the one hand, for those sentenced to substantial prison sentences, the position under the old law in France is arguably harsher than the law in the UK, where rights to vote are restored when a prisoner’s sentence is served. On the other hand, the position relating to those sentenced for shorter terms in the UK is arguably harsher than the position in France.

Of course, the ECJ ruling applies only to the right to vote in European elections. The wider limitations on prisoners’ right to vote, and the long-standing divergence of view between the ECtHR and the UK Government on the legal position in the UK, remain.

For details of the ECJ judgement see http://curia.europa.eu/juris/document/document.jsf?text=&docid=169189&pageIndex=0&doclang=EN&mode=req&dir=&occ=first&part=1&cid=242509

Written by lwtmp

October 15, 2015 at 3:35 pm

The changing constitution – abolition of the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform

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Just over a year ago, (October 2014) I published a blog item here on a consultation by the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee of the House of Commons in which it explored the arguments for and against the adoption of a Written Constitution. It followed that with a rather anodyne report, published before the dissolution of the Coalition Government, suggesting that more work should be done on this.
It also suggested that the Committee should be reconstituted after the outcome of the 2015 Election was known.
Despite the fact that there is considerable discussion about constitutional change, particularly issues – such as English Votes for English Laws – which came out of the Scottish Referendum, the Select Committee itself has not been reconstituted.

For the Select Committee’s Final Report on this subject go to http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmselect/cmpolcon/599/59902.htm
Under the title ‘Consultation on A new Magna Carta?’ it attaches, as an Annex, a draft accessible summary constitution, with options for reform, written by Professor Robert Blackburn of King’s College London. This is an interesting contribution to a much wider debate.
For more detailed discussion about constitutional developments you need to look at the work of the Constitution Unit, based in University College London. See http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/

Written by lwtmp

October 12, 2015 at 3:04 pm

Revolution in the Justice system?

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On 23 June 2015, the Lord Chancellor delivered a major speech on his vision for the development of the Justice system. Mr Gove is not shy of taking on existing established practices – witness his battles with the teachers when he was Secretary of State for Education under the Coalition Government.

In his speech, entitled What does a one nation justice policy look like? he argues that the justice system is in need of fundamental reform if is it to deliver access to justice to ordinary people.

A potentially very important difference between what he was trying to do in the world of education and what he now seeks to do to the justice system is that for the latter, much of the initiative for reform is coming from the judiciary itself. They see the need for better use of court facilities, fundamental investment in IT which would enable much legal work to be done without attendance at courts, support for new ideas – in particular in civil justice – endorsing proposals recently set out by Justice in its report Civil Justice in an Age of Austerity. (see this blog, entry for 5 May 2015)

First reactions to the Lord Chancellor’s speech can be heard in a special edition of the BBC programme Law in Action which was broadcast on the same day. The discussion – by Sir Stanley Burnton, Dame Hazel Genn and Keir Starmer – provides a useful basis for understanding what may start to unfold in the justice system over the next five years

What is absolutely certain is that anyone starting the study of law should be aware of what is in the pipeline – things are likely to change pretty quickly.

To read the speech go to https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/what-does-a-one-nation-justice-policy-look-like

To hear the Law in Action Broadcast go to http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05zktnf#auto

The Centre for Justice Innovation, whose work is mentioned in the programme has a website at http://www.justiceinnovation.org/

Work of the Equality and Human Rights Commission: podcast with Nony Ardill

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The Equality and Human Rights Commission is the body given the statutory mandate to challenge discrimination, and to protect and promote human rights. As it states on its website:

“We live in a country with a long history of upholding people’s rights, valuing diversity and challenging intolerance. The EHRC seeks to maintain and strengthen this heritage while identifying and tackling areas where there is still unfair discrimination or where human rights are not being respected.”

To get a clearer idea about how the Commission goes about its work, I have been talking to Nony Ardill, a Senior Lawyer with the Commission. She provides a fascinating account of the ways in which the Commission works with other agencies to fulfill its (very challenging) mandate.

To hear the podcast, go to http://global.oup.com/uk/orc/law/els/partington14_15/student/podcasts/NonyArdill.mp3

To read more about the work of the Commission, go to http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/

Written by lwtmp

November 13, 2014 at 4:00 pm

Considering the case for a written constitution

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In July 2014, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons launched an inquiry into the question of whether there is a need for a new Magna Carta. The inquiry follows from research undertaken at King’s College London which lays out three different models – including one fully fleshed out, complete constitution – and sets out some of the arguments for and against codifying the constitution in this way. The following summary is from the Committee’s website.

Arguments for

The King’s research points to the fact that the UK has a “sprawling mass” of common law, Acts of Parliament, and European treaty obligations, and a number of important but uncertain and unwritten “conventions” that govern administration, but the full picture is unclear and uncertain to electors in our democracy. They point to concerns about an “elective dictatorship”, and argue that it has “become too easy for governments to implement political and constitutional reforms to suit their own political convenience”. A written constitution would entrench requirements for popular and parliamentary consent.  The present unwritten constitution is “an anachronism riddled with references to our ancient past, unsuited to the social and political democracy of the 21st century and future aspirations of its people. It fails to give primacy to the sovereignty of the people and discourages popular participation in the political process.”

Arguments against

Conversely, the case against a written constitution is that it is unnecessary, undesirable and un-British. The UK’s unwritten constitution is evolutionary and flexible in nature, enabling practical problems to be resolved as they arise and individual reforms made. The research points to concerns that a written constitution would create more litigation in the courts and politicise the judiciary, requiring them to pass judgement on the constitutionality of government legislation (which currently happens only in some contexts, such as compatibility with the Human Rights Act), when the final word on legal matters should lie with elected politicians in Parliament, not unelected judges. There is the simple argument that there are so many practical problems in preparing and enacting a written constitution, there is little point in even considering it. There is no real popular support or demand and, especially given the massive amount of time and destabilising effect such a reform would entail, it is a very low priority even for those who support the idea.

The Committee is currently taking evidence on the issue and will publish a report early in 2015.

For further detail go to http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/political-and-constitutional-reform-committee/news/report-a-new-magna-carta/

Written by lwtmp

October 21, 2014 at 9:06 am