Written 17th October 2013 by Olliers Solicitors

This week, two prisoners have been unsuccessful in their appeal to the UK’s highest court in relation to the right to vote in UK elections. Convicted murderers Peter Chester and George McGeoch had argued that EU law gave them a right to vote despite the fact that they cannot under British law. Their appeal was today rejected by seven Supreme Court judges who considered the subject.

Appeal to Vote

Lady Hale, deputy president of the Supreme Court, said:

“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.”

There is still a “substantial majority against it”, she said, adding:

“It is not surprising therefore that in February 2011, elected parliamentarians also voted overwhelmingly against any relaxation of the present law.

“In such circumstances, it is incumbent upon the courts to tread delicately. Of course, in any modern democracy, the views of the public and parliamentarians cannot be the end of the story.

“Democracy is about more than respecting the views of the majority. It is also about safeguarding the rights of minorities, including unpopular minorities.”

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, tweeted that the ruling was “a great victory for common sense”.

Electoral Ban

The electoral ban on sentenced prisoners is contained in Section 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, as amended by the Representation of the People Acts 1985 and 2000. The ban dates back to the Forfeiture Act of 1870.

The UK’s blanket ban on prisoners voting remains in place despite the European Court ruling it unlawful in March 2004. In March 2004, the European Court of Human Rights (Hirst vs the United Kingdom (No 2)) ruled unanimously against the UK Government’s blanket ban on sentenced prisoners voting; the Government’s subsequent appeal to the Grand Chamber of the European Court was dismissed in October 2005.

The Government is currently considering its position and has published the Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Draft Bill for scrutiny by a joint committee of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. It has suggested three options: a ban for prisoners sentenced to four years or longer, a ban for prisoners sentenced to longer than six months and a continuation of the existing ban.

The only other adult nationals who cannot vote in general elections are hereditary peers who are members of the House of Lords, life peers, patients detained in psychiatric hospitals as a result of their crimes and those convicted in the previous five years of corrupt or illegal election practices. Remand prisoners, people imprisoned for contempt of court and fine defaulters held in prison are eligible to vote.

Sean Humber, a leading human rights lawyer commented:

“Over the last decade, the European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly found that the blanket ban on prisoner voting in the UK represents a breach of prisoners’ human rights.

“As such, the UK Government remains morally and legally bound to take the necessary action to remedy the breach.

“Successive Governments have dragged their feet on this issue, doing as little as possible as slowly as possible.”

Rachel Darlington

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