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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Prisoner voting rights

Prisoner voting rights

21 April 2010

Leigh Day & Co has today filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on behalf of Leon Punchard, a serving prisoner at HMP Norwich, seeking a declaration and compensation from the UK government for its failure to take the necessary steps to allow him to vote at the upcoming General Election.

Following an announcement by the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, on 6th April 2010, the date for the next General Election has been fixed for 6th May 2010. The deadline for registering to vote in this upcoming General Election passed yesterday, on 20th April 2010.

Mr Punchard, who was convicted and sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment in December 2009, is not due to be released until July 2010 and will therefore still be a serving prisoner when the General Election is held. Under section 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, Mr Punchard and all other sentenced prisoners in the UK will be barred from voting in the upcoming General Election.

This is despite a decision by the ECtHR as far back as October 2005 in Hirst v United Kingdom, which determined that the ban on all sentenced prisoners in the UK from voting was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Since this decision, the Government has had nearly a full parliamentary term to legislate to rectify this breach of the ECHR but has failed to do so. Instead, the Government has simply embarked upon two lengthy public consultations, which many commentators see as a delaying tactic in taking the necessary steps to rectify the breach. The tactic has to some extent succeeded and, on the eve of the General Election, there is still no response from the Government to the second public consultation, let alone a fixed timetable for taking the necessary steps to legislate.

It is extremely unusual for the UK government to not take the necessary steps to rectify a breach of the ECHR which has been identified by the ECtHR. This seeming prevarication by the Government has drawn intense criticism from both domestic and international quarters, with the Council of Europe going as far as passing an interim resolution in December 2009 stating that, unless the Government acted quickly, there was a significant risk that the upcoming General Election would be performed in a way that breached the ECHR.

Leigh Day & Co has responded to both of the public consultations in this matter, arguing that all sentenced prisoners should be allowed the right to vote. However, in the second consultation, the Government has made it clear that, if and when they do take steps to legislate, the automatic right to vote will not be extended to all sentenced prisoners. Instead, the Government has stated that its intention is to determine which prisoners will be allowed the right to vote by the duration of their sentence.

Specifically, the Government has proposed four categories of sentenced prisoners who could be granted the automatic right to vote, with the categories ranging from prisoners serving one year to four years in prison. However, the Government has already stated that they are inclined towards setting the threshold, for those sentenced prisoners automatically granted the right to vote, at the lower end of the spectrum. Mr Punchard is one such of the still thousands of sentenced prisoners who, if these proposals had been introduced, would have been able to vote in the upcoming General Election.

Earlier this year, Leigh Day & Co wrote to the Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw, requesting that the Government take immediate steps to legislate to allow Mr Punchard to vote in the upcoming General Election. However, no such steps have been taken and, with the date for registering to vote having now come and gone, Mr Punchard is barred from voting.

With no other remedies available to him under the domestic legal system, Mr Punchard has no alternative but return to the ECtHR seeking a declaration and compensation from the UK government for their breach of one of his most fundamental Convention rights.

Leigh Day & Co has instructed David Lock, a leading human rights barrister at No5 Chambers, in this matter.

For further information, please contact Benjamin Burrows or Sean Humber at this office on 020 7650 1200.

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