Student blog post: With Reference to the Case-Law of the European Convention on Human Rights Do Prisoners Have the Right to Vote and, if yes, to which Extent?

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This post (edited for publication) is contributed to our blog as part of a series of work produced by students for assessment within the module ‘Public International Law’. Following from last year’s blogging success, we decided to publish our students’ excellent work in this area again in this way. The module is an option in the second year of Bristol Law School’s LLB programme. It continues to be led by Associate Professor Dr Noelle Quenivet. Learning and teaching on the module was developed by Noelle to include the use of online portfolios within a partly student led curriculum. The posts in this series show the outstanding research and analytical abilities of students on our programmes. Views expressed in this blog post are those of the author only who consents to the publication

Guest author: Magdalena Vakulova

Introduction

The right to vote has always been a hot topic. In fact, fights to achieve universal suffrage have been here for centuries, and still continue today. Even though the right to vote is one of the basic principles of democratic society and the strongest ‘say’ the citizen can have as well as one of the fundamental human rights encapsulated in Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) there are still many ambiguities over potential restrictions to this right.

The current law in the United Kingdom denies the right to vote to prisoners while incarcerated (People Act 1983, part 1 section 3). However, according to Hirst, a case decided by the European Court of Human Rights, the denial of right to vote for prisoners falls outside the given margin of appreciation as the automatic ‘blanket ban‘ contradicts the very essence of this right.

Referring to the relevant case law I will examine the right to vote for prisoners in the UK. I decided to focus on the UK because the judgment (Hirst v UK) was not only the first one in a long series of cases relating to universal suffrage for prisoners but was also applied in different jurisdictions across Europe. I will be arguing that even though the States were given a wide margin of appreciation to exclude prisoners from the voting process, this can only be done if it does not violate the whole essence of the right. In my opinion reasonable restrictions of this right should be allowed and approved as compatible with Article 3, 10 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)

Mr Hirst’s Argument

In this video Mr Hirst, convicted of murder, argues in favour of prisoners’ right to vote as a basic human right. 

The Right to Vote as the Basis of Democract

First, we must understand that the right to vote is not only a basic aspect of citizenship but also viewed as the ‘core principle’ (L Beckman ‘The Right to Democracy and the Human Right to Vote: The Instrumental Argument Rejected’ (2014) 13 Journal of Human Rights 381) of the democratic system (Watch this video which explains why a voting right for everyone is so important in a democratic society.) In order to ensure effective democracy within the State the basic human rights of every citizen (Scoppola v Italy, para 51) must be preserved and this without discrimination or unreasonable restrictions incompatible with the terms of the ECHR (Hirst v UK (paras 27 and 41)). Moreover, everyone’s right to participate in voting is implied in Article 21 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and more explicitly outlined in Article 25 of the ICCPR where the right to vote is established as a binding norm of international law. Further Article 3 of Protocol 1 to the ECHR states that the right to vote is not only the key aspect of effective political democracy but also an important element of the Convention system (Mathieu-Mohin and Clerfayt v Belgium, para 47). Therefore the exclusion of prisoners from the right to vote must be reconcilable with the purposes of Article 3 of Protocol 1 (Hirst v UK (No. 2), para 62). However, in my opinion, the UK has departed from this fundamental norm as it has prevented prisoners from exercising this basic right and so has fully blocked their access to the democratic system.

The Margin of Appreciation and UK Arguments 

In the case of Hirst v UK it was held that a blanket ban on prisoners’ right to vote under s. 3(1) of the 1983 Act is not compatible with Article 3 of Protocol 1. Even though the States are endowed with a wide margin of appreciation and the rights under Article 3 are not absolute, the automatic ban falls outside these margins (Hirst No 2, para 82) as it is not proportionate (Scoppola, paras 93-102; Hirst No 2, paras 76-85) (see also Sauvé v Canada (Supreme Court of Canada), paras 37 and 54-62).

The first  argument that the UK submitted to the European Court of Human Rights was that as prisoners had breached a social contract, they lacked moral virtue and therefore did not deserve this right. The second ground of the government’s reasoning was that this restriction was a punishment which helped enhancing civic responsibility (Hirst No 2, para 50).

The Response of the ECtHR to the UK Arguments 

The ECHR rejected the UK arguments. Firstly, it argued that the lack of moral virtue is contradictory to the fact that the State requires prisoners to fulfill other civic duties. Moreover the ECHR emphasized that the right to vote is a right and not a privilege (see also Sauvé, paras 14, 19-24 and 37; Hirst No 2, paras 59 and 75) which you deserve through a good moral virtue.

Secondly, it was held that incarceration per se is not a reasonable justification for violating fundamental rights. Whilst the ECHR to some extent approved the idea of a voting ban being understood as a punishment (Hirst No 2, paras 74-75, see also Dikson v United Kingdom) it however stressed that any such restriction  needed to have a clear link between the punishment and the restriction (see Hirst No 2, Joint Dissenting Opinion of Judges Wildhaber, Costa, Lorenzen, Kovler and Jebens, para 8 and Dissenting Opinion of Judge Costa, para 3). Yet, there was no such evidence that the UK had even thought about the link to the offense (see discussion by Weston) or any other justification of the punishment. In contrast the UK applied the automatic ban to every prisoner. The UK reasoning was not objective at any point and therefore I agree that the ban contradicts the very essence of the universal suffrage (see Mathieu-Mohin, para 52).

Conclusion 

In my opinion the reasoning of the European Court of Human Rights in Hirst was correct as the UK’s justification for the ban was discriminatory and not legally tenable. In this light I think that the UK should carry out debates and amend the current legislation so that the restriction of the right to vote is possible to some extent at least. Furthermore I believe that enfranchisement will help prisoners in their rehabilitation.