No European Court damages for prisoners denied vote

Wormwood Scrubs prison

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The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the UK has again breached prisoners' rights by failing to give them the vote.

But it refused to award damages to the 10 inmates bringing the action, saying the ruling in their favour was enough.

The group, who are prisoners in Scottish jails, argued the UK's ban on them voting in the 2009 European elections breached their human rights.

The UK has already been told it must allow some prisoners to vote.

Both the previous Labour government and current coalition have failed to legislate to change the law - although Parliamentarians have been considering various proposals from ministers to end the long-running row with the Strasbourg court.

In the latest case, the court - which oversees human rights law that the UK signed up to - had been asked to award damages to the inmates because of the UK's repeated failure over almost a decade to end the blanket ban on voting.

But although the court said the inmates, who include sex offenders, had suffered a breach of their rights, they were not entitled to any compensation.

In their ruling, judges said that in the vast majority of cases relating to prisoners' votes they had had "expressly declined" to order governments to make payments to convicted criminals.

"As in those cases, in the present case the court concludes that the finding of a violation constitutes sufficient just satisfaction for any non-pecuniary damage sustained by the applicants," said the latest ruling.

They also refused to order the British government to pay the inmates' legal costs.

In a dissenting ruling, one of the judges complained the case should never have come before the court - because it had repeatedly demonstrated that it had no settled view over votes for prisoners - making it even harder for individual governments to work out what to do to avoid further claims.

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Home Affairs Correspondent Dominic Casciani
Analysis: Dominic Casciani, Home affairs correspondent

Both the British government and parliamentarians have made clear in triple underlined red ink that they don't want to give prisoners the vote. So had the European Court ordered compensation, it would have sparked yet another almighty row over human rights law.

The court is obviously conscious of the political situation it finds itself in - but in reality it rarely orders big payouts - preferring to focus on principles.

However, the ruling once again exposes its own internal divisions over the principles - and how to translate its opposition on a blanket ban on prisoners voting into practical rules. That's why two judges didn't see the point in dealing with the complaints - with one very pointedly attacking his own court for making a mess of this issue down the years.

Those divisions probably mean that despite pressure to change the law, ministers could gamble yet again on ducking the issue as a general election approaches.

Read Dominic's blog entry on the row that keeps coming back.

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Responding to the judgement, a spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said: "The Government has always been clear that it believes prisoner voting is an issue that should ultimately be decided in the UK."

Lost appeal

Convicted prisoners in the UK have been long banned from voting on the basis that they have forfeited that right by breaking the law and going to jail. Other European nations have the same ban in place - although the majority allow some prisoners to vote in some circumstances.

In 2004 the ECHR in Strasbourg ruled that a UK blanket ban on prisoners voting was unlawful after it received a claim from convicted killer John Hirst. The following year that judgement became final after the UK lost an appeal - piling pressure on ministers to change the law.

Seven years later, MPs voted to keep the ban on prisoner voting - excluding those on remand.

In December 2013, a cross-party committee of MPs concluded that prisoners serving a jail term of a year or less should be entitled to vote - but so far this has not been enacted. The government is considering the recommendations.

Prime Minister David Cameron has previously said that inmates will not be given the right to vote under his government, and said that the idea made him feel "physically sick".

Last October convicted murderers Peter Chester and George McGeoch lost a bid at the Supreme Court to win prisoners the right to vote in light of the ECHR's original 2004 ruling.

Mr Cameron described that particular decision as "a great victory for common sense". Had the court ordered compensation, ministers would have faced the prospect of paying similar sums to hundreds of other cases before the courts.

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