Prisoner in court battle to fight for right to vote takes council to court to fight voting ban

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The Independent Online

A convicted drug smuggler could clear the way for prisoners to be given the vote if he succeeds with a court challenge brought under human rights laws.

A convicted drug smuggler could clear the way for prisoners to be given the vote if he succeeds with a court challenge brought under human rights laws.

Anthony Pearson, who is serving a 10-year sentence at the Verne prison in Portland, Dorset, is attempting to overthrow a voting ban which has been enshrined in British law for 130 years. It currently denies the franchise to 50,000 inmates in England and Wales and 5,000 in Scotland.

Pearson claims that the ban is a breach of article three, protocol one of the European Convention on Human Rights, which was incorporated into British law earlier this month. The challenge is being publicly funded by the Legal Services Commission and has been brought against the electoral registration officer of Weymouth and Portland Borough Council.

Penal reformers are backing Pearson's challenge to the ban, which they describe as "a relic from the 19th century". Joe Levenson, policy officer of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "Sentenced prisoners can vote in many countries around the world, including in a majority of European countries.

"Giving UK prisoners the right to vote would encourage them to take the responsibilities that come with citizenship. It would also encourage politicians to take more of an active interest in prisons, which in turn would raise the level of debate about penal policy."

Pearson's solicitor, Daniel Machover, said that in districts such as Portland, where there are three prisons, inmates could make up a significant proportion of the electorate. "At the moment prisoners are not listened to because they do not have a vote," he said.

The voting ban that already applied to members of the House of Lords and the certified insane was extended to prisoners in Britain in the Forfeiture Act of 1870. It does not apply to remand or unsentenced inmates.

A government working party into electoral procedures rejected the idea of prisoner voting in 1998. It concluded: "We do not consider that there are any grounds for extending the franchise to convicted prisoners serving a custodial sentence who have, in our view, forfeited their rights in this respect by their actions."

But countries including France, Germany, Poland, Canada, South Africa and Peru do give prisoners the vote. In the US, four states allow prisoners to vote but another 14 ban anyone who has been in jail from voting for the rest of their lives.

Pearson was sentenced in September 1998 at Kingston Crown Court in Surrey. His challenge is due to be heard at Weymouth county court but his lawyers are applying for it to be transferred to the High Court in London.

Even if Pearson is successful in his action, his lawyers concede that he can win only the pyrrhic victory of the court making a "declaration of incompatibility" in British law. Only Parliament can lift the ban by overturning the primary legislation.