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Evaluation on the UK's Regulations on Prisoner Voting

Info: 1730 words (7 pages) Law Essay
Published: 12th Nov 2020

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According to the statistics provided by the Prison Reform Trust, in the year 2010, 71,549 out of 84,548 prisoners across the UK were denied the right to vote. This placed the UK government like previous years in violation of Protocol 1 Article 3 of the ECHR. The UK government justified the ban claiming that it helped prevent crime, punish offenders, enhance civic responsibility and respect for the law.

The UK’s decision for a blanket ban on prisoner voting has come under scrutiny time after time, one of the cases challenging this decision was the Hirst v UK (2005).  After being denied the right to vote under section 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, John Hirst now a former prisoner took the UK government to the European Court of Human Rights. The case resulted in the court holding 12 votes to 5 that the UK was in violation of Article 3 of Protocol No.1. Although the ECHR did not state that all prisoners should be given the right to vote as it is unable to change British legislation. However, it did emphasise that the UK government were not being fully considerate of the legal implications of the ban (Slapper, 2016).

In 2010, another case known as Greens and MT v United Kingdom was brought before the ECHR. The ECHR approached this case using the ‘pilot judgement’ procedure which attempted to identify the structural issues underlying repetitive cases and imposing an obligation on the states concerned to address the problems (Echr.coe.int, 2019). The court did not consider it appropriate to specify the content of future legislation but did set a time frame of 6 months in which the UK government was expected to change its legislation and remove the ban. However, the UK government failed to comply, and despite being ruled unlawful the ban still remains in place. Moreover, the UK governments continued failure to implement changes suggested by the ECHR meant that they were in constant violation of their obligations under the convention. For the court this violation represented a potential threat to the future effectiveness of the convention and its authority. Although the UK government did acknowledge their obligation to implement legislative reform to comply with the Article 3 Protocol 1 of the ECHR. It has however, sought to delay the reform, insisting the existence of a UK political census in favour of retaining the blanket ban on prisoner voting (Murray, 2015).

As the British constitution works on the principle of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’, the ECHR cannot overrule its legislation and expects the UK parliament to pass legislation that is compatible with the Convention Rights (Wilson et al., 2018). However, in some cases the rights and legislation set by these respective bodies conflict. Therefore, the Human Rights Act 1998 provides courts with two measure that can be taken if need be. Firstly, under the Section 3 of the Human Rights Act, all legislations are required to be interpreted so that they are consistent with the Convention Rights where possible. If this measure fails to deliver, courts under Section 4 of the Human Rights Act can make a ‘declaration of incompatibility’, (Slapper, 2015). Even though these measures have been put in place to ensure that the ECHR and the UK legislation work together smoothly, it is inevitably the British parliaments decision to take action, if any. Furthermore, because the Human Rights Act is not entrenched, and is itself subject to change or even removal, it therefore fails to have any effect on the UK’s parliamentary sovereignty.

According to the ECHR by taking away the ability for prisoners to vote they are placed in a state of civil death, which according to Easton (2012) seems inappropriate in a society committed to equality and democracy. In addition, the right to vote plays an important role in creating a dialogue between prisoners and the government. Therefore, by removing the vote, prisoners are made redundant of a formal, organised and legitimate right to a voice. Additionally, if prisoners were given the vote, politicians will be encouraged to take the rights, interests and needs of these individuals seriously. This would further allow the government to interact and become familiar with the prison demographics and possibly come up solutions to reduce crime. For example, an increased focus on long-term rehabilitation can help reduce reoffending rates. Some authors such as Cavadino et al (2019) also hold a similar view and argue that one of the important rights a prisoner should have is the maximum “preservation of his or her autonomy and personal responsibly in compatibility with their loss of liberty”. Therefore, I agree with the above statement given by Juliet Lyon that people are sent to prison to lose their liberty not their identity, and should be given the right to vote as it is a basic human right and not a privilege.

The above opinions, however, are not shared by all. Author Black, T (2012) argues that the campaign to grant prisoners the right to vote is built on a degraded view of the vote. He states that the vote was formerly a way for the politically unfree e.g. wage labourers to become heard and have an active say in the any rule introduced by the government rather than it being imposed upon them. He further argues that the vote should be used to have a say in running the society and not to make those in prison feel better about themselves or to make them feel part of the society which they have been removed from for good reasons. What this argument fails to consider, however, is that the removal of the right to vote increases the social disadvantages which along with poverty are a leading cause of crime and reoffending. Furthermore, prisoner disenfranchisement has disproportionate affects on those from a minority background who are over-represented in the prison population. Whereas a prisoner enfranchisement approach would encourage prisoners to view themselves as responsible and law-abiding citizens.

Moreover, prisons are a place for rehabilitating individuals in to a responsible, safe and productive member of the society. Rehabilitation should further provide the individuals in question with the opportunities to heal and transform into a better person, which may be difficult for them to do so in a highly dysfunctional and damaged lives which most prisoners have. Therefore, for this process to work it is important that prisoners are not deprived of the most basic right- the right to choose who governs us. Other people like Dr Peter a former Bishop to HM Prisons and President of the National Council for Independent Monitoring also advocate in favour of the vote. He states that denying convicted prisoners the right to vote does not serve any purpose in the deterrence and reformation process. The ban is also viewed by some as an unjust additional punishment which achieves nothing and has no relation to crime or protecting public safety.

Lastly, after years of delays and further calls from the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers to resolve the situation, the Secretary of State for Justice published proposals in 2017. In the proposals given the main change proposed was that prisoners could vote on ‘Temporary License’.  The proposal presented will offer the eligibility to vote to a limited number of prisoners. The inmates entitled will include those on remand, committed for contempt of court, defaulted on paying fines, on home detention curfew or those on temporary licence. The proposal was accepted by the Council of Europe as an acceptable compromise. The UK government intended to implement the changes proposed by the end of 2018 and report to the council in September 2018. The Council of Europe confirmed that the case had been closed in September 2018 (Bowcott, 2017). This proposal although discriminatory to those serving longer sentences is a somewhat positive start to acknowledging prisoner rights. Although, a lot more needs to be done to give prisoners the rights they deserve in order not to lose their identity.

The current legislation only stops those who are sentenced prisoners from voting and does not include those who are convicted but yet to be sentenced. Therefore, it can be argued that why should those who are locked up be treated differently, this unfairness suggests that the ban is limited, selective and does little in terms of public safety and for the society in general. A possible solution the government may use to tackle this issue is by creating a system by which a prisoner may or may not be allowed to vote based on how severe his or her crime/s are.


  • Bowcott, O. (2017). Council of Europe accepts UK compromise on prisoner voting rights. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/dec/07/council-of-europe-accepts-uk-compromise-on-prisoner-voting-rights [Accessed 19 Jan. 2020].
  • Cavadino, M., Dignan, J. and Mair, G. (2019). The Penal System: An Introduction. 6th ed. London: SAGE Publications, p.Chapter 6.
  • Easton, S., Black, T. and Dhami, M. (2012). Should prisoners be allowed to vote?. [online] Taylor & Francis. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09627251.2012.751247?scroll=top&needAccess=true [Accessed 19 Jan. 2020].
  • Echr.coe.int. (2019). Prisoners’ right to vote. [online] Available at: https://www.echr.coe.int/Documents/FS_Prisoners_vote_ENG.pdf [Accessed 18 Jan. 2020].
  • Murray, C. (2015). Playing for Time: Prisoner Disenfranchisement under the ECHR after Hirst v United Kingdom. [online] Taylor & Francis. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.5235/096157611798456771?journalCode=rklj20 [Accessed 19 Jan. 2020].
  • Prisonreformtrust.org.uk. (2011). Barred from voting. [online] Available at: http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/WhatWeDo/Projectsresearch/Citizenship/BarredfromVoting [Accessed 18 Jan. 2020].
  • Slapper, G. (2016). How the law works. 4th ed. Routledge, pp.171-172.
  • Wilson, S., Rutherford, H., Storey, T. and Wortley, N. (2018). English legal system. 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, pp.183-184.


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