Prisoners and voting rights in the UK

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) heard a case today from a French citizen who argued that his civil and political rights had been violated as he was not allowed to vote in European elections as a prisoner. The ECJ ruled against this citizen, saying that the punishment was proportionate to his crime.

This is hugely important for the UK which has been the subject of a debate over prisoners’ right to vote for over a decade now. The implication of this case is that removing the right of prisoners to vote within the EU is acceptable as a form of punishment. While the Court were ruling exclusively on the right to vote in EU elections, it is logical to see that this could easily be extended to UK elections too.

It is ironic that this case was decided on the exact 10th anniversary of Hirst v. UK in which the European Court of Human Rights (part of the Council of Europe and NOT the EU – please do not get these confused!) ruled that the UK should allow prisoners to vote. However, as a founder member of the Council of Europe, the UK has continued to ignore this ruling over the last ten years with Cameron saying the idea of giving prisoners the vote made him ‘sick to his stomach’.

This would be really useful for students looking at democracy in the UK and a potential democratic deficit (the removal of prisoners rights to vote). It is also useful for the UK Constitution with EU rulings forming a key source of the UK Constitution and therefore this ruling would have directly had an impact on the UK. It is also useful for the Judiciary topic, looking at how judges in the UK and beyond look to protect, or not, the rights of citizens. The BBC article above suggests that some UK prisoners may appeal against this ruling but for now this is the decision that stands.

It is likely that Cameron is breathing a sigh of relief over this ruling as if it had gone the other way and the EU had ordered that prisoners were to be given the vote, it would have doubtless galvanised the ‘out’ campaign when it comes to the promised EU referendum, something Cameron is already struggling to deal with at the Tory Party Conference in Manchester this week.

Exam tip – It is hugely frustrating when students do not understand the Council of Europe (largely based around human rights) compared to the EU (a political union). If the UK were to leave the EU, it would have little impact on the rulings from the European Court of Rights as this is part of the Council of Europe of which we would remain a member. There is a really simple guide to this in the BBC article under ‘What is the European Court of Justice?’