Chief European Court judge warns UK on prisoner votes

By Shirin Wheeler
BBC News, Strasbourg


The UK is currently considering whether to comply with a European Court of Human Rights ruling that it should not ban all prisoners from voting. The court's most senior judge tells the BBC's The Record: Europe it would be a "disaster" for the UK - and bracket it with the Greek colonels of 1967 - if it defied the court or withdrew from the Convention.

I am sitting in the Grand Chamber inside the iconic European Court of Human Rights building in Strasbourg.

Image caption,
The European Court of Human Rights has come under attack from UK MPs

In front of me the court's most senior judge - its president Jean-Paul Costa.

He is surprisingly undefensive given the barrage that's been aimed at his institution from many in the UK recently.

In fact the Frenchman positively twinkles when I put some of the backbench charges to him - that he and the 46 other judges at the court are a bunch of "unelected bureaucrats" and that they are intent on overriding Parliamentary sovereignty .

"Well it's not necessarily pejorative to be a bureaucrat or to be unelected," he says. "After all high civil servants are unelected bureaucrats. But personally I am very surprised because most of my colleagues have long judicial experience in their own countries and I myself have been a judge for more than 30 years in France and then in Strasbourg. I have been elected as a judge to this court by the parliamentary assembly."

He adds, laughing: "When I shave myself in the morning, I see my face in the glass and I don't see myself an unelected bureaucrat."

'Prudence and restraint'

In the ruling by 17 judges that the UK's ban on prisoner voting was a violation of human rights, Mr Costa himself was actually one of five to argue that Britain was not guilty.

He was overruled, including by the British judge at the court, but he now supports the collective decision and the need sometimes for the supranational court to step in: "I think the raison d'etre of the court is to be a little above the national laws of course with prudence and self restraint," he said.

But he understands the emotion in the UK about that particular ruling. As he puts it that "murderers or rapists or serious offenders have to be entitled with the right to vote... and the feeling (is) that it's not for a court like the court in Strasbourg to give instructions."

One gets the sense that these are issues the court and by extension the Council of Europe, which oversees it, is grappling with.

There are logistical reasons why that is imperative. The court has a backlog of 140,000 cases and rising. In Turkey in May, justice ministers from the 47 countries in the Council of Europe will put the issue of reform at the top of their agenda - in particular the question of the quality of judgements and where the remit of the Strasbourg court should lie.

Turkey's Ambassador to the Council, Daryal Batibay, says the definition of human rights has rightly been extended since 1950 to keep up with social and technological change but if the court tries to encroach on national sovereignty then "we are all lost and the court is lost".

After David Cameron told the UK Parliament that he had brought forward a review to introduce a Bill of Rights, I asked Deputy Registrar Michael O'Boyle - second in command at the court - whether a UK Bill of Rights would mean that the Strasbourg court would not override Parliament in the future?

He chooses his words carefully but it's pretty clear: "It is inconceivable that you could have a Bill of Rights that was not subject to judicial review," he says.

"Historically there is an example of such a thing - in the Soviet Union".

Prisoners votes

Meanwhile, the issue of voting rights for prisoners is not going away. Next month the focus will shift back to Strasbourg - to its Committee of Ministers, the executive arm of the Council of Europe.

These are the ambassadors to the Council of Europe who have the job of deciding on March 9 whether Britain's response to the ruling is adequate.

Urszula Gacek, Poland's new Ambassador to the Council, says the UK government should take some comfort that the ambassadors are "more pragmatic" than the judges.

The ambassadors want to see the ruling implemented but, he adds, "nobody likes being told what to do and how to deal with their domestic affairs... we won't be beating up on the UK and will be cautious not to point the finger of blame".

Even so, surprisingly perhaps, only one country has ever overtly defied the Convention.

President Costa says for Britain to do so, by refusing to implement the ruling as some backbenchers have suggested, would be "a disaster certainly for the Council of Europe and the court but also a disaster for the United Kingdom".

He adds: "The only country which denounced the Convention was Greece in 1967 at the time of the dictatorship of the colonels. I cannot imagine even if I can understand some irritation that the UK, which is a great country, could be in the same situation as the colonels in 1967."

* The Record: Europe examines the key moments in the political week in Brussels and Strasbourg and focuses on the work of the European Parliament and European Commission. It is broadcast on BBC Parliament on Saturdays at 2300 GMT, Sundays at 1700 GMT and Mondays at 1000 GMT, on BBC World on Saturdays and Sundays at 0630 CET and on the BBC News channel on Sundays at 0530 GMT and Mondays at 0330 GMT. Follow the programme on Facebook.

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