Prisoners’ Votes and the Rule of Law

The row over prisoners’ voting trundles along at Westminster with Justice Secretary Chris Grayling MP announcing that Parliament had a clear right to ignore the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights.  The European Court of Human Rights found that the current position in the UK, which bans all convicted prisoners from voting, is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.  The United Kingdom has been given until November 2012 to comply with the judgment, but the UK Government is continuing in is defiance.

This defiance raises a fundamental question about the rule of law.  There is a constitutional convention in this country that says Parliament is supreme.  Our legislature is, in theory, not subject to any restrictions or authority which dictates what it can and cannot do.  However, over the years Parliament has voted to limit its sovereignty and one of the ways in which it did this was to agree to be bound by the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.  In 1966 the United Kingdom accepted the right of individuals to petition the European Court and its jurisdiction.

The fact that the United Kingdom has accepted the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights means that it is bound to implement its judgments, even the ones that it disagrees with.  Litigation carries with it the very real risk that at least one party will be left disappointed by the decision of the Court; that at least one party will dislike the decision of the Court.  However much a person disagrees with the judgment of a court they are bound to accept it, unless there is a route of appeal.  If there no longer exists a route of appeal then the matter is final and the discontented party will simply have to live with the decision.

If people began to disregard the decisions of a court which they did not agree with the existence of the court would be rendered pointless.  There would exist no effective remedy for people who have seen their rights infringed in some way.  A court exists to act as independent arbiters of disputes between two parties.  In the context of the European Court of Human Rights those disputes are between the State and the citizens of that State.  Once all domestic avenues have been utilised a citizen can take an alleged infringement upon their “Convention Rights” to the European Court of Human Rights for adjudication.  That is waht John Hirst (and others) have done over the issue of prisoners’ votes.  The European Court of Human Rights has found that the blanket ban on prisoners voting is incompatible with the Convention.  As a result of this the United Kingdom is under an international and legal obligation to amend the law so that it becomes compatible with the Convention.

You may or may not agree with the Government’s stance on the issues, but that does not negate the serious implications for the United Kingdom if it ignores this judgment and does not amend the law on prisoners not having the right to vote in UK elections.  The first consequence is that the United Kingdom will be liable to pay compensation to prisoners whenever they are denied their right to vote.  That could be expensive.  The UK prison population is probably just under 100,000 over all the UK jurisdictions.  It could cost the UK hundreds of millions of pounds each time an election occurs (based on compensation of around £2,000 per prisoner).  This is money that the UK simply doesn’t have and would mean that funding would be taken out of essential services.

Aside from the financial implications of the United Kingdom failing to adhere to the European Court’s ruling is the reputational damage to the United Kingdom.  The UK does not have a perfect record on human rights (no State does), but it does generally have a good reputation internationally for upholding the rights of its citizens.  The UK isn’t slow in telling other States that their human rights record is unacceptable.  A decision by the United Kingdom Parliament to specifically ignore the decision of a body established to protect the rights of citizens would significantly damage the United Kingdom’s standing in the world and could cause tensions between the United Kingdom and other nations.

Furthermore, the ignoring of this judgment would set a precedent.  This would be, I suggest, a dangerous precedent to be set.  It would set the precedent that if Parliament doesn’t like future decisions of the Court that it can simply ignore those decisions.  What if the decision was a lot more fundamental than this one?  What if the United Kingdom decided that it simply did not agree with a decision relating to the deportation of an individual to a country where they would be executed or tortured?  The precedent would be there for the Government to simply ignore the decision of the European Court and go ahead with the deportation anyway.

Some might argue that this is an entirely different situation.  It may well be a different situation, but the precedent it sets is no less serious.  Human Rights belong to all human’s by virtue of their status as a human being.  When we begin to deny rights to groups of people we have disdain for we enter a dangerous path.  If we look at some of the worst examples of human rights abuses in the modern world they all have one thing in common.  The stripping of the rights of people who the State did not like.  It’s not entirely analogous and is an extreme example, but if one considers Nazi Germany and the model employed there.  Basic and fundamental rights were denied to humans simply because they belonged to a particular group of people.  Some may say that such abuses cannot and will not happen again, but today around the world people are denied basic rights because of the part of society they happen to belong to.  Women are denied education simply because they are women, homosexuals are executed simply because they are homosexual and adherents of certain religions also face execution because of their religious belief.  It has happened in Europe before and if we believe that it cannot happen again in Europe then we have not understood the lessons from the first half of last century.

The issue of prisoners’ voting (or the wider prisoners’ rights movement) may not be on the same scale as the genocides of Nazi Germany.  However, the precedent of abandoning human rights principles and of stripping groups of people of their rights based solely on their status in society is a dangerous one.  It is one that we should not permit.

Parliament has to do the right thing and accept the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights on this issue even though it may not agree with it.  Parliament has to extend the franchise to some prisoners removing it on much more objective criteria than simply the fact that a person is a convicted prisoner.

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