Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Posts Tagged ‘human 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






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

To read more about the work of the Commission, go to

Written by lwtmp

November 13, 2014 at 4:00 pm

Where next for Human Rights?

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Much publicity has been given to the publication of proposals from the Conservative Party to, in some way, opt out of the European Convention, or more particularly judgements of the European Court of Human Rights.

I was unable to track the paper down through the Conservative Party website, but it can be accessed from the BBC News website at

The proposals are controversial and have already generated heated debate. A key issue, which has not had the air-time it deserves, is what message any such move by the UK Government would have on the other 46 states who are also members of the Council of Europe and who are signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights. Despite the Government’s impatience with certain aspects of the way in which the European Convention impacts on the UK (such as the decision on prisoner’s voting rights, or the power of the judiciary to impose whole life prison sentences without possibility of review) there is a general public assumption that – on the whole – human rights are respected in the UK. But this cannot be said for many of the countries who have joined the Council of Europe.

If the UK Government is able to announce that it no longer wishes to accept rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, then it is not hard to imagine that many other countries – where human rights are less well protected – might want to make the same argument. This could lead to an unravelling of the standards set by the European Convention on Human Rights that could lead to significantly adverse consequences for the future development of human rights in Europe.

More broadly, if these proposals went ahead, they could undermine the ability of future UK Government’s to make the case for improvements in human rights standards, in other countries where they currently do not exist or are extremely weak.

I do not argue here that the application of the European Convention through the work of the European Court on Human Rights is perfect. Far from it: the decision taking process is sclerotic; the backlog of cases is a scandal. The UK Government has taken a lead in discussions on developing measures to ensure that the European Court works more efficiently.

And if, as the Conservative Party argues, the Court is suffering from ‘mission creep’ then to remain engaged with the Court and to argue that there has been mission creep seems to me a more positive way forward. (In the latest prisoners’ voting rights case, at least 2 judges expressed significant concerns about the way decisions of the Court had been going, which opens up the possibility that the Court might alter its approach. )

This should be an important issue for public debate. The problem is that so many people do not really understand what the Convention rights are nor how they are applied. The issues are treated inadequately in the news media. Thus there is often assumed to be a lack of common sense about the Convention and its application which is not justified.

Certainly it is an issue that will continue to attract attention over the next couple of years.

Written by lwtmp

October 4, 2014 at 5:13 pm