Prisoner voting: High Court blocks compensation bid

Image caption,
The government is opposed to giving prisoners the vote but its hand may be forced

The High Court has blocked compensation bids by prisoners barred from voting in last year's general election.

Claims have been launched by 585 serving prisoners who say that their human rights were breached.

The UK's ban on prisoners voting has been held incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights - but MPs voted to keep the ban.

Judge Mr Justice Langstaff said the courts in England and Wales could rule only on current UK laws.

Ministers are considering how to respond to the MPs' vote - seven years after the European Court on Human Rights ruled against a blanket ban on prisoner voting.

Claims have been launched in county courts by 585 serving prisoners and there are up to 1,000 potential cases in the pipeline, the judge was told.

But Mr Justice Langstaff said while a blanket ban had been ruled incompatible with the convention, that did not mean the UK would have to grant the vote to all prisoners.

'Distinct' roles

He said it was not "obvious" that the lead claimant, Paul Hydes, who was convicted in July 2009 of burglary, robbery and firearms offences, would be granted the vote if the government changed the law.

"All that would depend on how, legitimately, Parliament chose to legislate," the judge said.

"He might well remain outside the scope of the franchise."

The previous High Court hearing took place before MPs debated the issue - at the instigation of backbench MPs Jack Straw and David Davis, who opposed the government's plan to give prisoners serving up to four years the vote.

"The case was heard a day before Parliament debated whether it should introduce legislation to amend the 1983 Act. Though the subject matter of each is the same - the enfranchisement of prisoners - the role of the courts and of the legislation are distinct.

"It is not part of the court's function to express any view as to the nature of legislative change, if any, merely to rule on that which the laws as currently enacted by Parliament require.

"This judgement is to the effect that, applying those laws, including the Human Rights Act 1998, a prisoner will not succeed before a court in England and Wales in any claims for damages or a declaration based on his disenfranchisement while serving his sentence."

It comes as the government's legal advisers tell Prime Minister David Cameron he could defy the European Court of Human Rights over its call to give prisoners the vote, according to a document leaked to the Times.

The document, prepared for Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, said the Strasbourg court could exert only "political rather than judicial" pressure on Britain.

Mr Cameron has previously said he has no choice but to comply with the court's call to give inmates the vote or face sanctions.

A source close to Mr Clegg confirmed the existence of the leaked document.

'Pressing for reform'

But Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has rejected claims that the UK could withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.

He was commenting on reports on a leaked government document that predicted the UK would be likely to face severe diplomatic and international pressure if it refused to comply with a ruling that prisoners must be allowed to vote.

But Mr Clarke told the BBC: "I think we're a million miles away from that.

"At the moment we are reflecting on the House of Commons debate we had, we're considering our options. Everybody knows that we accept the rule of law in this country. Everybody also knows that we have the right to control our own democracy and do the minimum that is necessary if we have to."

He also rejected suggestions of a confrontation with other European governments over the prison voting issue, saying: 'We will of course be pressing for reform of the court, as other countries want.

"I'm not anticipating any great punch-up in the Council of Europe. Every now and then you have to consider these things and get the balance right. At the same time the British ought to respect their treaty obligations."

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