Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Posts Tagged ‘Prisoners’ voting 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






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

Written by lwtmp

October 15, 2015 at 3:35 pm

Prisoners’ voting rights: latest developments

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The question of whether the UK Government’s policy, that all prisoners should be denied the right to vote while they are in jail, has received further consideration, both in the UK Parliament and in the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights.

In the 2004 case of Hirst v United Kingdom (No. 2), the European Court of Human Rights found that the UK’s complete prohibition on convicted prisoners voting was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. (A number of other cases had also reach this conclusion.)

The UK Government’s position has been that the blanket ban is justified on public policy grounds. However, given the clear ruling of the European Court, in 2012 the Government – after considerable delay and with very great reluctance – did publish a draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill. This Bill was subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by a Joint Committee of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

In December 2013, it published a thoughtful report on the issue.

By way of background, the Committee stated:

‘Underlying our inquiry is a far-reaching debate about the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the European Court of Human Rights, the Convention system as a whole and our attachment to the rule of law.

‘In reaching our conclusions we have taken fully into account the grave implications of a refusal to comply with the Court’s judgment for the UK’s relationship with the Court and for the future of the entire Convention system. A refusal to implement the Court’s judgment, which is binding under international law, would not only undermine the standing of the UK; it would also give succour to those states in the Council of Europe who have a poor record of protecting human rights and who could regard the UK’s action as setting a precedent for them to follow.

‘We have also considered the implications of failure to comply with the European Court’s ruling for the rule of law, which the UK has for so long upheld. The rule of law has been and should remain a fundamental tenet of UK policy. It is not possible to reconcile the principle of the rule of law with remaining within the Convention while declining to implement the judgment of the Court.’

Taking these general principles into account, the Committee then considered the options relating to prisoners’ voting rights.

‘In the Committee’s view, the following considerations should be taken into account:

  • In a democracy the vote is a right, not a privilege: it should not be removed without good reason.
  • The vote is a presumptive, not an absolute right: all democratic states restrict the right to vote in order to achieve clearly defined, legitimate objectives.
  • The vote is also a power: citizens are entrusted, in voting, with an element of power over their fellow-citizens.
  • There is a legitimate expectation that those convicted of the most heinous crimes should, as part of their punishment, be stripped of the power embodied in the right to vote.
  • There is an element of arbitrariness in selecting the custody threshold as the unique indicator of the type of offence that is so serious as to justify loss of the vote.
  • There are no convincing penal-policy arguments in favour of disenfranchisement; but a case has been made that enfranchisement might assist prisoner rehabilitation by providing an incentive to re-engage with society.
  • The enfranchisement of a few thousand prisoners is far outweighed by the importance of the rule of law and the desirability of remaining part of the Convention system.’

In the light of these considerations, the Committee recommended that
‘the Government introduce a Bill at the start of the 2014-15 session, which should provide that all prisoners serving sentences of 12 months or less should be entitled to vote in all UK parliamentary, local and European elections; and moreover that prisoners should be entitled to apply, up to 6 months before their scheduled release date, to be registered to vote in the constituency into which they are due to be released.’

In February 2014, the Lord Chancellor wrote to the Committee a letter thanking them for their views and assuring them that they were under active consideration in Government. This letter was published in June 2014. No Bill was announced in the Queens Speech delivered in June 2014.

Since then, a further case has been determined by a Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights. In Firth and others v United Kingdom, decided in August 2014, it was held that – failing a legislative response to its earlier rulings – the United Kingdom remained in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

However the Chamber refused to award any damages to the applicants, on the grounds that this ruling was enough. The decision also included a dissenting judgement from JUDGE NICOLAOU, who did not think that there had been a breach of the European Convention. In another dissenting judgement, JUDGE WOJTYCZEK indicated his view that the line of decisions developed by the European Court might not be correct and in his view the whole issue should have been revisited by the Court.

There is no doubt that there remains in the UK – and perhaps in other states in the Council of Europe – a view that prisoners should not have the vote. However, there is also no doubt that, pending any revision of the Court’s approach – the present position of the UK Government is at odds with the European Convention as interpreted by the European Court on Human Rights. It may be anticipated that any further response from the UK Government will be further delayed, especially in the light of the reservations expressed by two of the judges involved in the latest case.

For further information, see report of the Joint Committee at;
the report of the Grand Chamber of the European Court is at{%22documentcollectionid2%22:[%22GRANDCHAMBER%22,%22CHAMBER%22],%22itemid%22:[%22001-146101%22]}

Written by lwtmp

August 21, 2014 at 3:51 pm

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

Written by lwtmp

October 17, 2013 at 3:50 pm