Last week the European Court of Human Rights ruled that prisoners, or former prisoners, are not entitled to any compensation despite the UK’s continued violation of prisoners’ rights to vote. Ten years on from the case of Hirst vs. the UK, where the International Court first ruled that the UK’s blanket ban on allowing prisoners to participate in elections was illegal, astonishingly little headway has been made.
In 2005 the Court at Strasbourg ruled that the UK’s uncompromising ban on prisoners’ voting rights violates Article 3 under Protocol 1 of the European Convention of Human Rights: the right to free elections, comprising universal adult suffrage. The court recognised that in particular cases it may be appropriate to remove a person’s right to vote, but stated that a general and automatic ban is a disproportionate reaction relating to a vitally important right.
Suffrage has changed dramatically over the last few centuries from the 1800s property right, which had no effect on prisoners who would not have owned land, to a human right of today. A question mark remains over whether sufficient debate has taken place concerning its changing nature and, perhaps most significantly, its absence from key, more recent acts, chiefly the Representation of the People Act of 1983.
The controversy that erupts from this issue is twofold. The first cause for dispute relates to the rights of prisoners and how exactly the right to vote should be classified. Retributive attitudes toward criminals care little for what happens to them during the time that they spend behind bars. This arguably makes an enormous contribution to the increasing number of prisoners who reoffend within the first year of release, most recently estimated at around 60 per cent. In 2010, David Cameron said: “It makes me physically ill even to contemplate having to give the vote to anyone who is in prison”, championing the exaggerated political rhetoric that only exacerbates such hostility among the general public.
Of course, prisons exist to increase public safety and deter people from criminal activity, but they are equally important in their function to rehabilitate prisoners and encourage civic responsibility. Denying prisoners the vote regardless of the length of their sentence or the seriousness of their crime achieves neither.
The second cause for dispute stems from a preoccupation with who decides whether prisoners can vote, which often overrides the key issue of whether or not prisoners should be allowed to vote.
Strasbourg has had a degree of power over the UK since 1990, when the Convention was amended with Protocol 11 and accepted by the European Council and the UK. In essence, it calls for the UK to comply with the Convention. By disregarding its terms, the UK is therefore breaching international law.
Those who see the International Court’s power as an infringement of the UK’s sovereignty must be confused about how the UK came to be party to the Convention in the first place. The UK must comply with the EHRC as a result of its own choice and the exercise of its sovereignty. To opt out of the Human Rights Convention when it seems convenient to do so is to disregard the contract of the treaties that were willingly entered into.
Additionally, those who fear a ‘loss of sovereignty’ must bear in mind that the International Court is not dictating a solution, but saying that the presently upheld position of a blanket ban cannot feasibly comply with the EHRC.