Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Posts Tagged ‘British Bill of Rights

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

Professor Malcolm’s book can be downloaded free at