Prisoners lose voting compensation bid

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The Independent Online

The High Court has blocked a compensation bid by prisoners barred from voting in last year's general election.

Claims have been launched in county courts nationwide by 585 serving prisoners, with another 1,000 potential cases in the pipeline, Mr Justice Langstaff was told in London.

Jason Coppel, for the Ministry of Justice, said the cases should be struck out as they were "misconceived and bound to fail".

"Any remedy is to be sought in Strasbourg and not the domestic courts," he said.

Convicted prisoners are excluded from the franchise by the Representation of the People Act 1983, which has been held as incompatible with Article 3 of the European Convention.

This has given rise to litigation on a number of fronts - in Strasbourg where 2,500 UK claims are pending, in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and previously in the High Court in the case of convicted murderer Peter Chester.

Giving his ruling today, Mr Justice Langstaff said: "The case was heard a day before Parliament debated whether it should introduce legislation to amend the 1983 Act.

"Though the subject matter of each is the same - the enfranchismement of prisoners - the role of the courts and of the legislature are distinct.

"It is no part of the court's function to express any view as to the nature of legislative change, if any: merely to rule on that which the laws as currently enacted by Parliament require.

"This judgment is to the effect that, applying those laws, including the Human Rights Act 1998, a prisoner will not succeed before a court in England and Wales in any claim for damages or a declaration based on his disenfranchisement while serving his sentence."

The judge said the fact that the 1983 Act was incompatible with a prisoner's Convention rights arose because of the blanket nature of the ban, as previous cases made clear.

Those cases were not to the effect that the Convention required a state to introduce the franchise universally to all prisoners.

They expressly recognised that a state had a wide margin of appreciation in deciding the category of case or prisoner for whom a restriction on the right to vote would not be a disproportionate interference with his rights generally.

He said that Paul Hydes - the lead claimant - was convicted in July 2009 of burglary, robbery and firearms offences for which he was serving life with a minimum term before parole could be considered of four years and 265 days.

"It is not obvious that however the margin of appreciation be exercised in honouring the Government's international obligations he would be within a category which would then be enfranchised.

"It cannot therefore be said that if the incompatibility were removed he would then have the vote. All would depend on how, legitimately, Parliament chose to legislate. He might well remain outside the scope of the franchise."

He concluded: "I hold that there are no reasonable grounds in domestic law for bringing a claim for damages or a declaration for being disenfranchised whilst a prisoner.

"Statute precludes it. Case law is against it. European authority is against the payment of compensatory damages in respect of it. A claim for a declaration is not hopeless, but difficult."