Prisoner's High Court battle for the right to vote

Convicted murderer says ban is a breach of his human rights
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The Independent Online

A prisoner has launched a High Court battle for the right to vote in parliamentary and EU elections.

Convicted murderer Peter Chester, 54, is challenging the Government's failure to grant him the franchise.

Lawyers for Chester, whose case is publicly funded, argued that the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, was breaching the European Convention on Human Rights by denying him the vote.

Chester, who is currently held at Wakefield prison, West Yorkshire, was sentenced to life after raping and strangling his niece, Donna Marie Gillbanks, in Blackpool in 1977. He has now completed his 20-year minimum jail term, and is eligible to apply for parole. So far, he has been considered too dangerous to release.

In August last year, the Ministry of Justice refused to confirm whether he would be permitted to vote when legal restrictions on prisoners voting are amended in the wake of a judgment of the European Court of Human Rights.

Hugh Southey, appearing for Chester at the High Court, argued the laws that prohibit serving prisoners voting must now be read by judges in a way that is compatible with the European Court decision. Mr Justice Burton said he was being asked to "amend the statute" in a way that would "allow each and every resident in HM Prisons to vote".

James Eadie QC, appearing for Mr Straw, said the case involved matters "of high social policy" and it was for Parliament, not the courts, to decide how far to extend the franchise. No one was suggesting every prisoner should be enfranchised, he said.

Chester has launched his appeal against the background of the case of John Hirst, who was jailed for manslaughter after killing his landlady with an axe. The European Court ruled in October 2005 that the UK's current ban on all serving prisoners from voting was a "blunt instrument" that contravened Article 3 of Protocol No 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Last April, it was announced that Mr Straw was considering allowing anyone sentenced to less than four years the right to cast a ballot.

Mr Southey said Chester had long ago completed his minimum jail term but remained in prison because the parole board did not consider him safe enough to release. Had he been freed on licence, he would have been able to vote.

Justice Burton will give his judgment on the case next Wednesday.

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