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