British prisoners to get voting rights

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

LONDON - Breaking a 140-year-old convention, Britain has decided to change its law and allow prisoners to vote in the country’s general election, as ruled by a European court six years ago.

Around 70,000 prisoners will be given voting rights for the first time in 140 years after Prime Minister David Cameron conceded there was nothing he could do to halt the European court ruling demanding the change, the Daily Telegraph reported.

Wednesday a government representative will tell the Court of Appeal that the law will be changed following legal advice that the taxpayer could have to pay tens of millions of pounds in compensation.

The decision, which brings to an end six years of government’s efforts to avoid the issue, opens the possibility that even those facing life sentences for very serious crimes could in future shape Britain’s elections.

Ministers are now examining ways that limits could be placed on which inmates can vote. They will push for strict conditions, including a ban on “lifers” and murderers from voting.

It is understood that judges may be given responsibility for eventually deciding which criminals are allowed to vote when they are sentenced, the report said.

Senior government sources said Cameron was “exasperated” and “furious” at having to agree to votes for prisoners, but the threat of costly litigation had forced his hand.

He was told that the government faced a series of compensation claims from prisoners and potential legal action from the European Union if it did not agree to a change.

“This is the last thing we wanted to do, but we have looked at this from every conceivable angle and had lawyers poring over the issue,” a senior government source was quoted as saying.

“But there is no way out and if we continued to delay then it could start costing the taxpayers hundreds of millions in litigation.”

Critics of the move have long argued that those who are guilty of preying on society should lose one of the most basic rights of a citizen. But the decision will please the Liberal Democrats, who have campaigned for the law to be changed.

In 2004, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the blanket ban imposed by Britain on its prisoners’ right to vote was discriminatory following a legal challenge by one John Hirst, jailed for killing his landlady.

The Strasbourg-based court said each country could decide which offences should carry restrictions on voting rights. Most other European nations allow some prisoners to take part in elections.

According to British legal experts, the bill for compensation could rise to more than 50 million pounds if prisoners are not given the voting rights. In May Lord Pannick, a crossbencher, said there were 70,000 prisoners who could sue, with each in line for damages “in the region of 750 pounds”.

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