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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Europe ups pressure to let prisoners vote in time for 2011 Holyrood election

Europe ups pressure to let prisoners vote in time for 2011 Holyrood election

Published Date: 09 June 2010

By Christopher Mackie

THE coalition government has come under intense pressure to grant prisoners the right to vote after the Council of Europe expressed its "profound regret" that a key human rights ruling had been ignored.

European ministers expressed "confidence" the new UK administration would comply with the orders of the European Court and allow inmates to cast their vote in time for the 2011 Holyrood elections.

UK ministers already face a slew of compensation claims from aggrieved prisoners after they were denied a vote in May's general election, and senior lawyers warned yesterday that, unless the government implemented the reforms, further damages cases were "inevitable" and a "very real risk".

In a strongly worded statement, the council, which oversees member states' compliance with European Court judgments, said the failure to grant prisoners the vote before the election had given rise to a "substantial risk of repetitive applications to the European Court".

The council noted its "profound regret" that "despite the repeated calls of the committee, the UK election was held… with the blanket ban on the right of convicted prisoners in custody to vote still in place".

The Scotsman understands the government will now have to accede to the demand, or risk a ruling by the European Court that the UK had failed to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights, a decision that could have wide-ranging political implications.

The council has given the UK government three months to implement the reforms before a resolution is issued on the failure to comply with the 2004 ruling. That landmark decision saw convicted killer John Hirst granted £8,000 in compensation after the European Court decided the 140-year-old restriction was illegal and had infringed his human rights.

In March, the council urged the Labour government to implement the changes ahead of the general election to avoid thousands of compensation claims from Britain's 70,000 prison population.

Yesterday, Jennifer Spence, the head of public and administrative law at Biggart Baillie, said "there is a very real risk" that the government will face further court challenges.

Christine O'Neill, the head of public-sector law at legal firm Brodies, said: "European ministers are essentially exhorting the UK to deal with this before next year's Scottish elections.

"If action isn't taken to change the position, it is inevitable there will be further challenges. The costs involved in dealing with applications to the court could be relatively substantial."

But John Lamont, the Scottish Conservatives' justice spokesman, restated his party's opposition to the plans. "It would be bizarre if those who break the law got to decide who should make the law," he said.

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