UK Warned: Give Prisoners the Vote within Six Months or Face Severe Penalties!

On the 6th October 2005 the European Court of Human Rights delivered its decision in the case of Hirst v United Kingdom. This case concerned prisoners and their right to vote. In the UK a person’s right to vote is taken away from them when they are convicted of a crime and they are not allowed to vote for the entirety of their sentence. The judgment of the Court was very clear: the UK’s policy of blanket disenfranchisement is incompatible with the provisions of the European Convention of Human Rights, specifically Article 3 of Protocol 1. This judgment meant that the UK had to change its policy of indiscriminate removal of the right to vote and start viewing the vote for what it truly is: a right and not a privilege.

What followed was a series of reports commissioned by the Government in which a policy of feet dragging seems to have been firmly encouraged. The reporting process was made of multiple stages and went far beyond the deadline set by both the Court and the reporting body itself. Included in these reports was a questionnaire which was open to the public to gauge what action should be taken in order to please both the Court and the general public. However, amongst the choices proposed by the Commission was an option to retain the current policy of blanket disenfranchisement. The option to allow all prisoners to vote was not included. This demonstrates the stubbornness of the UK government on this rather controversial topic.

It is now 5 years since the Court delivered its judgment and no action has been taken to amend the incompatibility of UK law with the provisions of the ECHR. In these 5 years the European Court has become increasingly impatient, as have some 2,500 prisoners who wish to have their innate right to vote reinstated. As a result the Court made another ruling, two weeks ago, against the UK’s voting policy on behalf of two Scottish prisoners in order to send a message to the Government. The Court ordered the UK to pay for the legal expenses of both applicants, but decided not to award damages for the time being.

In making this judgment the European Court of Human Rights has handed the UK government an ultimatum: give prisoners the vote within six months or face severe penalties. These penalties would be in the form of awarding damages in the 2,500 similar cases currently pending before the Court. It also warned that if something positive is not done within this deadline that the other 70,000 prisoners currently being denied the vote in the UK could also sue the Government for damages.

Such a liberal idea has not been received well by the UK’s conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, who said that he felt “physically ill” at the thought of giving prisoners the right to vote. However, in the face of such severe consequences for breaching the human rights of thousands he has reluctantly agreed to make changes to the law. We will have to see what such a law looks like when it is finalised, but something says that it will not be everything human rights campaigners are hoping for. Despite this, prisoners have taken a step forward in ensuring that they should not lose any human rights other than those which are necessary by virtue of their incarceration.

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  1. […] to see that the article mentions  issues that have been recently examined in this blog, such as voting rights for prisoners, crucifixes in classrooms and abortion rights. If you want to read the article, click […]

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