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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Killer fought the system and won

Killer fought the system and won

By Joshua Rozenberg, Legal Editor
Published: 12:01AM BST 07 Oct 2005

John Hirst, the former inmate who won in Strasbourg yesterday, is a seasoned campaigner for prisoners' rights.

In 1980 he admitted killing his landlady, Bronia Burton, with an axe. His plea of guilty to manslaughter was accepted after the court heard that he was a man "with a gross personality disorder to such a degree that he was amoral".

Hirst was sentenced to life, with a tariff of 15 years. He served a further 10 years and was released last year.

He began his challenge to the prisoners' voting ban while still in jail, giving interviews to The Daily Telegraph and the BBC. As a result, he fell foul of rules that allowed inmates to speak to the media only in "exceptional circumstances".

In 2002, the High Court ruled that restrictions on prisoners talking about conditions in prison breached their right to free speech. But Hirst was less successful in his challenge to the voting ban, which was dismissed by the High Court in 2001.

Hirst, 54, said yesterday that his fight had been about breaking the link between crime and the right to take part in the democratic process.

Asked how he would vote, he said he had been a Labour supporter until the war on Iraq. "We do watch the news in prison," he added. "We're not stupid. With 75,000 prisoners, we could really change things."

Prisoners to get the vote

By Joshua Rozenberg, Legal Editor
Published: 12:01AM BST 07 Oct 2005

Prisoners could be given the vote after the European Court ruled yesterday that laws disenfranchising them were a breach of their human rights.

Ministers promised a review but said that not all 70,000 prisoners in the country would get the vote.

The Prison Officers' Association said the results in some marginal seats could be affected if inmates were allowed to vote in the constituency that included their prison, rather than in the area where they lived.

The Government's defeat at the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, by a majority of 12 votes to five, means that Parliament will have to change the law.

However, the judges stopped short of saying that all prisoners should be given the vote, merely ruling that "a blanket restriction" on all convicted prisoners went too far.

"It applies automatically to such prisoners, irrespective of the length of their sentence and irrespective of the nature or gravity of their offence and their individual circumstances," the court said.

"Such a general, automatic and indiscriminate restriction on a vitally important convention right must be seen as falling outside any acceptable [national discretion], however wide that…might be."

Colin Moses, the general secretary of the Prison Officers' Association, said the ruling would turn prisons into "political pressure points".

He said: "This will focus politicians' minds on prisons if there are 77,000 votes there for them.

"A lot of prisons are in marginal seats and 600 or 700 votes from prisoners could swing the result of an election one way or the other."

Dominic Grieve, the shadow attorney general, said: "If convicted rapists and murderers are given the vote, it will bring the law into disrepute and many people will see it as making a mockery of justice."

But Juliet Lyon, the head of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "This judgment confirms that people are sent to prison to lose their liberty, not their identity or citizenship."

Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, said: "The result of this is not that every convicted prisoner is going to get the right to vote."

He told Radio 4's World at One: "We need to look and see whether there are any categories that should be given the right to vote."

The law banning prisoners from voting dates from the 14th century. It does not apply to those jailed for contempt or for non-payment of fines and the law was changed in 2000 to allow remand prisoners to vote as well as unconvicted mental patients.

By signing the human rights convention, Britain undertook to hold elections "under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people".

In interpreting this provision, states are allowed a measure of discretion to hold elections according to their own laws and customs.

But the court will step in if national discretion is exercised in a disproportionate way.

It was the second defeat for the Government on the issue. In March last year a chamber of seven judges ruled unanimously in favour of John Hirst, the prisoner who brought the case, and ordered the Government to pay £8,000 towards his legal costs.

The Government asked for the ruling to be referred to a grand chamber of 17 judges, which awarded Hirst's lawyers a further £16,000 costs.

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