No5 barrister in Prisoner Voting case
Press reports suggesting that the Government will shortly announce that prisoners in the UK will be given the right to vote, represent an important development in a long running saga.
No5 barrister, David Lock, has been instructed by Leigh Day and Co who together are currently acting for over 550 serving prisoners in applications to the European Court of Human Rights (“the ECtHR”). These applications seek a declaration that the UK Government’s failure to allow the prisoners to vote at the recent General Election on 6th May 2010 was unlawful and request compensation for the breach of their human rights.
Up until now, the Government has repeatedly refused to take action on this issue. This is despite a decision by the ECtHR as far back as October 2005 in Hirst v United Kingdom, which determined that the ban on all sentenced prisoners in the UK from voting was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights (“the ECHR”).
Since this decision, the Government has simply embarked upon two lengthy public consultations setting out limited options to allow some prisoners the right to vote. Many commentators saw these consultations as little more than a delaying tactic in order to avoid taking the necessary steps to rectify the breach.
Leigh Day and Co responded to both of the public consultations, arguing that the Government should take steps to allow all sentenced prisoners the right to vote without further delay. No rational reasons have been put forward to justify withholding the right to vote from prisoners save for ill-defined concerns with regard to what may or may not be popular with the public. The right to vote emphasises to prisoners that they have a continuing stake, despite their imprisonment. It is also important in a democracy that those elected are accountable for their actions to their electorate and that the electorate is as large and representative of society as possible. Enfranchisement is therefore beneficial not only to prisoners themselves but also to society more generally. Legally, it is important to remember that prisoners continue to enjoy all the fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed under the Convention to the rest of society save for the right to liberty.
Earlier this year, Leigh Day and Co wrote to the Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw, requesting that the Government take immediate steps to allow prisoners to vote in the upcoming General Election and threatening legal action if the necessary steps were not taken. No such steps were taken.
The Government’s prevarication has drawn intense criticism from both domestic and international quarters. The Joint Committee on Human Rights (“the JCHR”), the parliamentary body responsible for monitoring adherence to ECtHR judgements, published a damning report in March 2010 condemning Government inaction. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe (the Foreign Ministers of Member States) expressed repeated criticism of the UK Government’s lack of action and went as far as passing an interim resolution in December 2009 stating that, unless the Government acted quickly, there was a significant risk that the upcoming General Election would be performed in a way that breached the European Convention on Human Rights.
Sean Humber, a partner in the Human Rights Department of Leigh Day and Co stated:
      “The Government’s announcement to allow prisoners to vote is an important development. However, it will be important to critically examine the Government’s detailed proposals when they are published. Any attempt to limit the right to vote to certain prisoners, while excluding others, is likely to be unlawful and almost inevitably lead to further legal challenge.”
      “However, this announcement is overdue. The Government should have taken the necessary steps to allow prisoners to vote at the last General Election. Their failure to do so means that it is appropriate for serving prisoners such as our clients to seek compensation for the breach of their human rights. The Government’s recent announcement further strengthens our clients’ claims.”