Prisoners Right to Vote: United Kingdom v Europe & Prisoners v the public.

Granting prisoners the right to vote on the United Kingdom has long been a contentious issue. There is a wide range of debate from parliament, civil rights groups and prisoners themselves on this issue. Successive attempts by serving prisoners to raise the issue of their disenfranchisement with the courts have encountered repeated setbacks. The latest appeal brought by Peter Chester and George McGeoch was rejected by the Supreme Court, in defiance of instruction from Europe, that a blanket ban on all detainees’ right to vote was incompatible with the European Union. Has the right to free elections been unnecessarily restricted by law, or is this a defiant political rebellion against Europe on public policy and a political move not to upset the applecart? 


The right to free elections is enshrined in Article 3 of the first protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights. This Article places a duty on the High Contracting Parties, in this case the United Kingdom, to hold free elections, but gives a wide enough ambit that allows sovereign states to place any restrictions on its citizens, in relation to free elections, as they deem appropriate to protect the state (Mathieu-Mohin and Clerfayt v Belgium, 1987). The United Kingdom’s stance toward who they deem appropriate to be allowed to vote in elections, does not extend to those who have been convicted of committing serious imprison able offences. This extends to all detained prisoners, whether they are incarcerated for one week, one year or a life sentence.


The issue raised by prisoners, originates with the domestic law of the United Kingdom. The legislation restricting the right to free elections is set out in Section 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1983; this states that all convicted prisoners are prevented from voting in parliamentary and local government elections for the duration of their detention. The legislation has been ratified by parliament and interpreted and implemented by the courts, however, inconsistency arises with the stance taken by the European Union and its subsequent case law. The European Union (EU) has deemed the UK’s position on free elections for detained prisoners to be incompatible with EU principles, and illegal on the grounds of unreasonableness on several occasions.


The case of Hirst v United Kingdom (no. 2) (2005) brought by John Hirst, convicted of the manslaughter of his landlady, was the first ruling from the European Court of Human Rights that established the UK’s stance, of universal disenfranchisement for serving prisoners, was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. The court ruled unanimously that there had been a violation of Human Rights under Article 3 of the First Protocol. On appeal by the UK, the court again found in favour, by a majority of twelve to five against universal disenfranchisement. The decision confirmed that it was illegal, on grounds of unreasonableness, to impose a blanket ban on the right of prisoners to vote in general and local elections. Hirst was the first case from the UK to reach the higher echelons of the European courts, but, it is not the first case to reach the higher courts of Europe. In H v Netherlands (1974) it was established that partial restriction on the right to vote was reasonable. The policy in the Netherlands was a restriction on prisoners sentenced to one year or more and further disenfranchisement for a period of three years exceeding the length of their sentence. The case brought by Chester and McGeoch, was based on creating a similar situation following the stance set out in H v Netherlands. Chester and McGeoch argued that allowing certain sects of the prison population to be granted the right to vote, especially if their vote could affect the society they are to be released into, would create a situation that would be both fair, reasonable and in line with the EU.


The UK Government initially attempted to introduce legislation to give prisoners the right to vote in the form of the Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Draft Bill. The bill was submitted for pre-legislative scrutiny by a joint committee of both houses and set out three options: a ban for prisoners sentenced to four years or more, a ban for prisoners sentenced to more than six months and a restatement of the existing ban. It was however rejected by the British Parliament, and the Government has repeatedly stated that prisoners will not be given the right to vote. The stance taken by the UK government against the EU seems to show that there is some euro-scepticism against the instruction to create a system based on EU principles. The case law shows a need for change but politicians refuse to shift on the issue. Is this then a combination of a Euro-rebellion and a socio-political stonewalling on a legitimate policy based on public opinion?


Lady Hale, the deputy president of the Supreme Court stated this week that “Prisoners’ voting is an emotive subject. Some people feel very strongly that prisoners should not be allowed to vote and public opinion polls indicate that most people share that view.” Lord Sumption, Justice of the Supreme Court, continued to say “It is not surprising therefore that… elected parliamentarians voted overwhelmingly against any relaxation of the present law. Democracy is about more than respecting the views of the majority. It is also about safeguarding the rights of minorities, including unpopular minorities; it seems that any change in the stance of the Government to allow prisoners’ rights must come from parliamentarians, a prospect that is unlikely to win over the public.” And therein rests the main opposition to granting the right to vote to serving prisoners. It is unlikely to be popular with the public.


If this stance can be put down to legitimate reasoning of parliament, is the reasoning of the public, which parliamentarians rely upon, correct in its assumption that prisoners should suffer, in all aspects, for their crime? Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted that “The Supreme Court judgment on prisoner voting is a great victory for common sense,” he went further to say in the House of Commons that the idea that prisoners be granted the right to vote made him “sick.” There is a wide variety of arguments against giving prisoners the right to vote. Dominic Grieve, former shadow Attorney General, said in 2011, it would be “ludicrous to give prisoners the right to vote, if convicted rapists and murderers are given the vote it will bring the law into disrepute and many people will see it as making a mockery of justice.” It would indeed fly in the face of the public if parliament voted to grant prisoners the right to vote, if public opinion polls stated that it is not what the public desire.


There are however also numerous arguments in favour of granting prisoners the right to vote, the main reason championed by prisoners such as Hirst, Chester and McGeoch is that disenfranchising prisoners creates a barrier to rehabilitation. Denying someone the right to be involved in the society to which they will be released and expected to re-integrate into, could lead to alienation and disaffection. The Right Reverend Dr Peter Selby, the Bishop to HM Prisons stated that  “Society’s belief that once convicted you are a non-person, one who should have no say in how our society is to develop, whose opinion is to count for nothing. What you forfeit when you go to jail is your liberty, you can’t pop down the pub for a pint, you can’t have sex with your loved one, this is what you’re actually forfeiting – not the vote.”  This in itself poses further societal problems for prisoners; the public opinion on whether criminals should suffer for their crimes or be rehabilitated may be down to personal beliefs. There is such a diverse range of opinion, based on if you were the victim of a crime to the newspaper you decide to read. Either way without a united public view, the stance of the parliamentarians will not change.  


In conclusion, it seems then that prisoners are facing obstacles on more than one front. Despite the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights both stating that the UK’s stance of universal disenfranchisement is illegal and unreasonable, politicians hold the trump card of acting on public opinion. The arguments that support prisoners rehabilitation onto society, ironically, an ideal politicians and the prisoners minister are working towards, does not outweigh the arguments and the public opinion against such a move. The combination of a rebellion against Europe and an unwillingness to upset the public, even if it is the greater interest of the state, necessarily mean that the views of prisoners are ignored for a time more. 


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