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By Owen Bowcott, legal affairs correspondent, The Guardian UK
European court of human rights rules ban breached rights of 1,015 Britons behind bars but declines to order any monetary damages
Prisoners and former prisoners who have been prevented from voting are not entitled to compensation or their legal costs, the European court of human rightshas ruled.
Despite finding yet again that the UK continues to violate prisoners’ rights to participate in elections, the Strasbourg court declined to order that any of 1,015 claimants be awarded payment in form of redress.
The latest mass claim was brought by lawyers for prisoners or ex-prisoners who were unable to vote in various elections between 2009 and 2011. It gathered all outstanding prisoner voting cases against the UK pending before the court.
The prisoners maintained they were prevented from voting in elections to the European parliament on 4 June 2009, the British parliamentary election of 6 May 2010 and elections to the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly and the Northern Irish assembly on 5 May 2011.
The UK’s blanket ban on allowing any prisoners to vote was first found to be illegal by the Strasbourg court in October 2005, in the case of Hirst v the UK. The court said it was a violation of article 3 of protocol 1 to the European convention on human rights, which relates to the right to free elections.
No compensation has been awarded by the court to applicants in any of these or related prisoner voting cases. Critics may see this ruling as evidence of Strasbourg backpedalling furiously in order to ensure that Eurosceptics are not provided with further grievances to bolster their campaign to withdraw from the court. Last week, the court upheld the rights of British courts to impose whole-life prison sentences in the most heinous murder cases.
The latest judgment said: “The court concluded that there had been a violation of article 3 of protocol No 1 because the case was identical to other prisoner voting cases in which a breach of the right to vote had been found and the relevant legislation had not yet been amended.”
It added: “The finding of a violation constitutes in itself sufficient just satisfaction for any non-pecuniary damage sustained by the applicants …“. It dismissed “the remainder of the applicants’ claim for just satisfaction”.
Sean Humber, head of the human rights department at law firm Leigh Day, who is acting for 554 clients who were imprisoned at the time of the May 2010 general election and refused the right to vote, said: “Despite the European court of human rights having first ruled that the UK government’s blanket ban on allowing prisoner voting was unlawful a decade ago, and confirming the unlawfulness of this blanket ban in a succession of further judgments ever since, the government stubbornly refuses to act.
“We are in a position where the government appears to take a perverse pleasure in unlawfully breaching the human rights of thousands of its citizens. It should be extremely worrying to all of us that the government seems to have so little regard for its international human rights obligations or the rule of law.”
The Equality and Human Rights Commission said: “It is for parliament to decide how our laws reflect judgments from the European court of human rights, and today’s ruling does not change that. The European court cannot change the UK’s laws.
“It would be for parliament to decide which of the possible convention-compliant approaches is introduced. It is important that the UK complies with the convention not least to reinforce our position when we ask other countries to respect human rights.”
The coalition government is not planning to take any further action on prisoner voting before the general election in May. Conservative policy, if the party wins the election, will be to treat judgments from theStrasbourg court merely as advisory. It has threatened to withdraw from the European convention on human rights if the court is unwilling to agree to its approach.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson 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.”
Culled from The Guardian UK