Murderer loses appeal over right to vote

Stephen Howard,Pa
Friday 17 December 2010 15:19

A man serving a life sentence for raping and murdering his niece lost his appeal today over the right to vote while in jail.

Peter Chester went to the Court of Appeal, where three judges unanimously dismissed his case and refused permission to go to the Supreme Court, the highest in the land.

Chester, 55, is serving life for raping and strangling seven-year-old Donna Marie Gillbanks in Blackpool in 1977.

The appeal court hearing last month came the day after the Government admitted it had no choice but to give "some prisoners" the vote because of a European court ruling that the blanket ban on serving prisoners going to the polls was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Chester's lawyers argued at the Court of Appeal that the serious nature of his offence did not justify disenfranchising him and to do so was "disproportionate" and violated his human rights.

Chester, also known as Peter Chester Speakman, has served 33 years in jail.

The High Court rejected his claim over voting last year.

Lord Justice Laws, giving the appeal court ruling, said: "There are deep philosophical differences of view between reasonable people upon the question of prisoners' suffrage."

He said Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke had stated that those who commit offences with aggravating features which lead to a jail sentence and who have previous criminal records forfeit their right to have a say in the way the country is governed for that period.

"Opponents of this view would say, with some force, that it is unconstitutional to regard disfranchisement as part of a criminal's punishment."

Lord Justice Laws said others believe that a person convicted of a very grave crime has so far distanced himself from the values of civil society that it would be a travesty of justice to allow him to participate in its governance.

He said the decision was a political one and the law is that a blanket ban is impermissible and there must be a link between the sanction and the conduct and circumstances of the individual concerned.

"The Government will no doubt consider carefully whether compliance with these standards requires a decision-making role in specific cases to be accorded to the judiciary."

He and Lord Justice Carnwath and the Master of the Rolls, Lord Neuberger, dismissed the appeal.

Whitehall said the Government confirmed proposals today which will prevent the most serious offenders voting.

All offenders sentenced to four years or more will automatically be barred from registering to vote.

Prisoners sentenced to less than four years will retain the right to vote, unless the sentencing judge removes it.

Mark Harper, Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, said: "The Government has brought these proposals forward as a result of a court ruling which it is obliged to implement. This is not a choice, it is a legal obligation. We are ensuring the most serious offenders will continue to be barred from voting.

"If the Government failed to implement this judgment, we would not only be in breach of our international obligations but could be risking taxpayers' money in paying out compensation claims."

He was referring to a case in 2005 when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the existing ban on prisoners being able to vote was contrary to Article 3, Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights - the right to free and fair elections.

The right to vote will be restricted to UK Westminster Parliamentary and European Parliament elections only. If prisoners are allowed to keep their right to vote, they would do so either by post or proxy.

Prisoners will not be registered at the prison, but at their former address or an area where they have a local connection.

An announcement will be made to Parliament next Monday and legislation will be brought forward next year for Parliament to debate.

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