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900 British Prisoners Freed Following Court Ruling

On July 26, 2002, nine hundred prisoners in England and Wales had to be set free after the European Court of Human rights unanimously ruled that extending prisoners' imprisonment for disciplinary violations without allowing them legal representation violated Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Prison Service had known that its prison disciplinary procedures, in which a prison warden may add time to a prisoner's sentence, was subject to legal challenge ever since the Convention came into force two years ago.

The current rules allow the prison warden to act as judge and jury and add up to 42 days to a prisoner's sentence for disciplinary violations. The ruling came in the case of two rapists challening the existing procedure. The court ruled that the British Government should pay 17,124 pounds in costs, but rejected a claim for 4,000 pounds in compensation.

According to Joe Leveson of the Prison Reform Trust, the Prison Service may face damage claims running into the millions of pounds. Prison officials ordered the immediate release of 98% of the prisoners to forestall additional liability. However, Prison Service officials expressed alarm at releasing prisoners who were incarcerated for violent offenses then received additional time due to violence in prison.

The Scottish Prison Service ceased a similar practice a year ago, anticipating legal problems. This is the second mass release from British prisons in six years. In 1996, 541 prisoners were released after it was discovered that their sentences had been miscalculated. The latest release will ease prison overcrowding caused by prison populations of approximately 72,000; the highest in Western Europe.

To comply with the Convention in the future, European prisons will have to allow prisoners legal representation when facing additional time added to their sentences. The Prison Service is considering creating an independent tribunal of legally qualified people who would visit prisons to hear disciplinary cases.

Source: TimesOnLine

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