UK breached prisoners’ voting rights - but they’ll get no compensation

The European Court of Human Rights ruled that the rights of 1,015 UK prisoners were breached when they were prevented from voting in elections.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled that the rights of 1,015 UK prisoners were breached when they were prevented from voting in elections.
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THE rights of more than 1,000 UK prisoners were breached when they were prevented from voting in elections, European judges have said.

But the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rejected the applicants’ claims for compensation and legal costs.

The case before the ECHR concerned 1,015 prisoners who were behind bars throughout various elections between 2009 and 2011.

Grouping together all of the long-standing prisoner voting cases against the UK, the court ruled that there had been a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights - right to a free election.

In August last year the court made a similar ruling, endorsing previous cases where it was found that the blanket ban was a breach.

In September 2014, the Council of Europe’s Committee “noted with profound concern and disappointment that the United Kingdom authorities did not introduce a Bill to parliament at the start of its 2014-2015 session as recommended by the competent parliamentary committee”.

It urged the United Kingdom authorities to introduce such a Bill as soon as possible, and will come back to the issue later this year.

Former inmate John Hirst has been campaigning for prisoner voting rights since 2001, when his legal challenge at the High Court failed.

Hirst, who served 25 years in jail after admitting the manslaughter of his landlady in 1979, pursued the case to the ECHR which first ruled in 2005 that the voting ban breached Article 3.

He said: “It is a real shame that compensation has not been awarded. While I can get some satisfaction from the ruling, the Government keeps ignoring what the ECHR is saying.

“It has been 10 years since my case and still nothing has changed. The only way I can see to force the issue is to impose some kind of financial penalty.”

Despite the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers calling for a new Bill to be introduced, and a draft Bill being published in 2012, there has been no change in the legislation.

Hirst continued: “What the Government needs to do is change its attitude.

“It is just this attitude of supremacy of Parliament. They talk about sovereignty, when in fact they have to accept that they have given some away to Europe.

“The issue is not sovereignty, the issue is them accepting that they have accepted to abide by a decision of a court that is out of this country.

“You don’t lose your status in civil society just because you’re in prison - you are still a member of the public, you are still a member of society. The vote has nothing to do with the actual punishment.”

Hirst added that by not allowing prisoners to vote for elected representatives, there was no sense of accountability.

“Without a vote, prisoners do not have a voice.

“If prisoners had the vote, then MPs would have to take note of prison conditions,” he said.

He concluded by saying that he believed the rate of re-offending would be lower if inmates left prison and felt that they had contributed to society by electing political representatives.

Sean Humber, the lawyer representing 554 prisoners fighting for the right to vote, welcomed the ECHR’s ruling, but said compensation should have been awarded, particularly in light of the lack of action from UK governments.

The judgment stated that while the ECHR recognised that some minor costs - such as spending on envelopes and stamps - must have been incurred, it did not consider it “necessary” to award legal costs.

Commenting that the ruling had confirmed the “unlawfulness” of the blanket ban, Mr Humber said successive UK governments had “cynically sought to drag the matter out through a succession of consultations during the last decade”.

“Unfortunately, we seem to be in the sad position where the Government is taking an almost perverse pleasure in ignoring successive court judgments and is content to continue violating the human rights of thousands of its citizens.

“It should be worrying to all of us that the Government appears to have so little regard for its international human rights obligations or indeed the rule of law,” said Mr Humber, from the firm Leigh Day.

In light of the ruling, the Ministry of Justice said it believed the issue of prisoner voting should be decided in the UK.

An MoJ spokesman said: “The Government has always been clear that it believes prisoner voting is an issue that should ultimately be decided in the UK. However, we welcome the court’s decision to refuse convicted prisoners costs or damages.”