Prisoners must be able to vote, European court says

But Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor, said on BBC Radio 4's World at One: "In relation to convicted prisoners, the result of this is not that every convicted prisoner is going to get the right to vote. We need to see whether there are any categories that should be given the right to vote.

"If you have been convicted of an offence that puts you in prison, you are, for that period, being taken out of freedom in society. It is absolutely plain that, whatever happens, in relation to prisoners sent to prison for any length of time, that [the ban] will remain." The legal challenge was brought by John Hirst while he was serving life in Rye Hill prison, Warwickshire, for manslaughter.

Now released and living in Hull, the 54-year-old said his fight had been about breaking the link between crime and the right to take part in the democratic process. He said: "The human rights court has agreed with me that the Government's position is wrong; it doesn't matter how heinous the crime, everyone is entitled to have the basic human right to vote."

After his application to vote from prison was turned down, Hirst took his case to the High Court and lost. But in a 12 to five majority, the 17 judges in the "Grand Chamber" of the European Court of Human Rights said his human rights had been breached by the UK Government because the 1983 Representation of the People Act did not allow convicts to to vote in parliamentary and local elections. The European Convention on Human Rights, to which Britain is a signatory, guarantees the "right to free elections" and, the judges said, that applied to prisoners.

In February 1980, Hirst admitted the manslaughter of his landlady Bronia Burton with an axe on the grounds of diminished responsibility. He was sentenced to "discretionary life imprisonment" with a minimum of 14 years. In November last year he was freed.

The European judges said the right to vote was "a right and not a privilege" and although that right was not absolute, individual countries were limited in the way they restricted voting rights.

Any such restrictions had to have a legitimate aim and be proportionate. So far as prisoners were concerned, the judges said "they generally continue to enjoy all the fundamental rights guaranteed under the convention, except liberty". There was no need for them to forfeit other rights guaranteed by the convention.

Juliet Lyon, the director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "This judgment confirms that people are sent to prison to lose their liberty, not their identity or their citizenship. Prisoners should be given every opportunity to pay for what they have done ... and make plans for effective resettlement. This should include maintaining their right to vote."

Bobby Cummines, the chief executive of the ex-offenders' charity, Unlock, said: "How can we make someone an upright citizen when the first thing we do in prison is to force that person to undergo a 'civic death'? Prisons must be used as a place for rehabilitation, where prisoners are trained to be decent citizens and that means ensuring that they know they are very much alive to society. This means equal voting rights."

The judges awarded Hirst costs of £16,000, but ruled against damages.