Monday, August 18, 2014
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued a judgment last week in the case of Firth and others v. United Kingdom in which it held that the United Kingdom violated the human rights of prisoners by denying them the right to vote in the 2009 elections for the European Parliament.
The prisoners based their claim on Article 3 of Protocol No. 1 to the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which states: "The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature."
In a 2005 case, Hirst v. UK, the ECHR held that the UK's law prohibiting convicted criminals from voting in parliamentary or local elections violated Article 3 to Protocol No. 1. The Court found that the rights guaranteed by this article are crucial to establishing and maintaining an effective democracy governed by the rule of law. However, the right to vote is not absolute. Any limitations on the right must be in pursuit of a legitimate aim, proportionate to that aim, and must not thwart the free expression of the will of the people in their choice of the legislature. The Court held that the UK law failed to meet this standard because prisoner disenfranchisement was automatic, regardless of the length of sentence or nature or severity of the crime.
Last year, a UK Parliamentary Committee reccomended legislation that would modify UK law to allow prisoners serving less than 12 month sentences to vote in all elections. However, the bill has not yet been adopted. Even if adopted, is not certain this change would satisfy the Court's test as described above. Accordingly, prisoners like Firth continue to sue to enforce their right to vote in various elections.
According to the ECHR, several European states reject the right of prisoners to vote under various circumstances. The Court noted that there is no Eurpean-wide agreement on the scope of the right of prisoners to vote or appropriate limitations on that right. Hence, the Court will likely to continue its jurisprudence in this area on a case-by-case basis.