No compensation for prisoners denied the vote, rules ECHR

Aug 12, 2014

But Strasbourg upholds previous ruling that blanket ban on prisoners voting is unlawful

Ian Waldie/Getty Images

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that prisoners in the UK are not entitled to damages because they are denied the right to vote, but is upheld its earlier ruling that the blanket ban breaches prisoners' human rights.

All prisoners in the UK, regardless of the seriousness of their crime, have been barred from voting in both local and parliamentary elections since 1969. Both the last Labour government and the coalition have been unsuccessful in introducing a change to the law ordered by the European court over a decade ago, the BBC reports. So how did the country's ongoing battle with the Strasbourg Court over prisoner's votes come about?

Why did the ECHR rule the blanket ban to be unlawful?

In 2002, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ruled that denying prisoners the vote was unlawful and contravened its convention. International law requires the UK to comply with the convention that it signed in 1950. The court clarified that the ability to vote was a fundamental human right that should be extended to all citizens. The convention has been respected by most European countries, where at least a portion of prisoners are allowed to vote. Campaigners have argued that the responsibility of voting and taking an interest in the political future of the country helps prisoners to reintegrate into society.

What did the court propose?

While the ECHR ruled the blanket electoral ban to be unlawful, it did leave room for British judges to deny the vote to rapists or murderers on a case-by-case basis. It said the UK should set forward a proposal on how it would go about amending its legislation.

Who is against the ruling and why?

The belief that voting is a not a right but a privilege which is lost after committing a crime seems to extend across all major parties. Labour Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan has said his party's policy has always been that prisoners should not be given the vote. "Committing a crime so serious that a judge has deprived you of your liberty means you should also lose the ability to vote in elections," he said, according to the Government's draft proposal.

David Cameron has said that prisoners "damn well shouldn't" receive the vote and that the thought made him feel "physically sick", the Daily Telegraph reports. He told parliament, "I am very clear about that. … No one should be in any doubt. Prisoners are not getting the vote under this Government."

Many Conservatives have also criticised the Strasbourg court for what they see as its "growing encroachment" into domestic matters, the BBC reports. Cameron last year promised to "clip the wings" of the ECHR.

So what happens now?

In December last year, a cross-party committee of MPs and peers issued a recommendation that prisoners serving less a year's sentence should be allowed to vote. It said that those guilty of the most "heinous crimes" should be denied the right.

It is now up to parliament to decide whether it will comply with the ECHR's ruling in entirety, offer a compromise, or directly defy Europe's highest court by continuing to impose a blanket ban on voting in prisons.

Europe's most senior human rights commissioner told the UK to withdraw from the Council of Europe if it decided to ignore the ruling. "My message is clear", Niels Muižnieks told the Guardian. "The Court's judgments have to be executed and the automatic and indiscriminate ban on voting rights for prisoners should be repealed."

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