European judges who gave voting rights to British criminals will rule on the flashpoint issue dividing Strasbourg judges and the UK politicians who have refused to follow their orders for seven years.
The European Court of Human Rights ruling was greeted with champagne and scorn in 2005 when the judgement was handed down – scorn from MPs and a toast from convicted killer John Hirst, who posted a YouTube video of himself singing “I shot the sheriff” and popping a champagne cork.
Britain’s mounting fury over controlling its sovereignty reached new heights in February when ECHR judges decided UK terrorist suspect Abu Qatada should be released on bail and held under house arrest – at a cost of millions to UK taxpayers – rather than deported to Jordan because his human rights might be breached. (The extremist cleric’s second bail application will be heard 28 May.)
The focus on Tuesday will be back on the Strasbourg judges and Franco Scoppola, an Italian who murdered his wife then sued Italy for breaching his human rights by preventing him from voting. Britain’s Attorney General Dominic Grieve flew to Strasbourg personally to submit arguments supporting Italy, extending until November the deadline for the UK to enact a law granting prisoner voting rights.
“Many members of the public as well as MPs are opposed both to prisoners being allowed to vote and to ‘interference’ by the Strasbourg’s court in domestic matters,” said Susan Easton, a barrister and senior tutor at Brunel University Law School.
“However, defenders of prisoners’ voting rights would argue that there are no security risks involved,” Ms Easton said. “Voting rights are fundamental rights rather than privileges to be earned, and treating prisoners as citizens may be an important element in their rehabilitation.”
Prime Minister David Cameron has already made his position clear, telling MPs: “It makes me physically ill to even contemplate having to give the vote to anyone who is in prison.” Sentenced prisoners have not been allowed to vote in the Uk since 1870.
The UK’s blanket ban on voting by convicted prisoners was supported in a free vote in the House of Commons by 234 votes to 22 and, in his ECHR submission, Mr Grieve called on judges to return powers to politicians over “the culture of their own particular state”.
The Scoppola decision is expected to clarify the European court’s somewhat murky position on whether all or only some of the UK’s prisoners should be participate in elections. In the case of Hirst v UK, Strasbourg judges criticised the UK’s ban but seemed to allow some freedom to states in deciding how to deal with voting. But in a later case, Frodl v Austria, judges suggested limits on voting should be applied rarely and in limited circumstances, and that there should be a link between the penalty and the offence committed.
If the ECHR clarifies or eases its stance on Tuesday, it may placate Conservative critics who want radical reform of the Human Rights Act to maintain British sovereignty.
“The government’s proposals to introduce voting rights for people in prison on short sentences are hanging by a thread. If, in the ECHR, the Italian claimant is successful and the judge rules the automatic and indiscriminate measure depriving Mr Scoppola of the right to vote is unlawful, the British government will have to go back to the drawing board,” said Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform.
Mr Neilson said he believes in giving more responsibility to prisoners, not less.
“One of the hallmarks of citizenship is the right to vote. If we want prisoners to return safely to the community, feeling they have a stake in society, then the right to vote is a good means of engaging individuals,” he said.
The judgement is also hotly anticipated as the UK’s obligation to comply with demands to change domestic law to offer prisoners the right to vote runs from six months from the date of Tuesday’s judgement.
“It will make it very difficult for the UK to further prolong or avoid changing the law,” Ms Easton said.