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European Human Rights Court Finds UK Prisoners Wrongfully Denied Vote

In August 2014, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France ruled against the United Kingdom and in favor of UK prisoners who were denied the right to vote in the 2009 European elections. The prisoners had argued that the UK’s voting ban constituted a violation of their human rights. British Prime Minister David Cameron strongly disagreed, saying the concept of prisoners being allowed to vote made him “physically sick.” The ECHR, however, declined to award damages or legal fees despite its rebuke of the UK’s actions.

By agreeing to join the European Union (EU), countries give up some of their legal sovereignty on issues considered to be important to the welfare of the Union as a whole, including trade, manufacturing, agriculture, transportation and basic human rights. The UK prisoners who filed suit were not seeking to vote in a local or UK-wide election, but rather in one where representatives to the EU Parliament were chosen.

The ECHR’s ruling followed its 2005 decision that barred the UK from preventing prisoners from voting in UK elections. [See: PLN, Aug. 2006, p.17]. Despite that adverse decision, the UK Parliament maintained the voting ban for prisoners, provoking continued calls from the ECHR that the UK comply with its order.

The UK’s Justice Ministry, responsible for supervising the country’s prison system, said through a spokesman, “The government has always been clear that it believes prisoner voting is an issue that should ultimately be decided in the UK. The government is reflecting on the report from the [Parliament’s] joint committee on prisoner voting rights and is actively considering its recommendations.” The UK Supreme Court has upheld the nation’s prisoner voting ban.

The ECHR ruled against the UK again in February 2015, finding human rights violations for continually denying prisoners the right to vote in elections between 2009 and 2011. Again, no compensation or costs were awarded.

In October 2015, however, another EU court, the Court of Justice, held in a separate case that European countries could prohibit voting by prisoners convicted of serious crimes. That ruling upheld a voting ban challenged by a French prisoner serving a sentence of more than five years.


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