Prisoner voting: what does European Court's judgment mean for the UK?

23 May 2012

On Tuesday, the grand chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) added another judgment to the prisoner voting saga, promting anger from many of the morning's papers.

Anyone picking up a copy of both the Daily Mail and the Daily Star would be forgiven for being left confused about the impact that this judgment would have in the UK,

(Daily Mail, 23 May 2012)

(Daily Star, 23 May 2012)

While the Mail says the ECtHR judgement gave ministers a "six month deadline to amend rules" on prisoner voting, the Star claimed it "paves the way for the UK to keep its 1870 ban on lags taking part in elections."

So what does this controversial judgement actually say?

The applicant in Scoppola v Italy (no. 3) alleged that the removal of his right to vote following a criminal conviction was in violation of Article 3 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention of Human Rights ('the Convention').

The grand chamber found that the restriction on the applicant's rights did not amount to a violation of Article 3 of Protocol 1.

While doing so, it confirmed what the ECtHR decided in the previous case of Hirst (no. 2) v UK that a "general, automatic and indiscriminate" restriction on the right to vote could not be considered an acceptable restriction of prisoners' rights.

Paragraph 102 of the judgment made it clear that states could have a wide margin of discretion over the matter of how to implement the ruling.

For some more in-depth coverage of the case, we thoroughly recommend Adam Wagner's post on the UK Human Rights Blog and Carl Gardner's post on his Head of Legal blog.

The media has taken a keen interest in the way in which human rights law is interpreted by the Strasbourg court, although not always accurately. (See, for example, our coverage of the Daily Mail exaggerating criticisms of ECtHR judges and what we had to say about the deportation-busting Human Rights Cat.)

So how has the press fared this time round? 

The Daily Mail captions contained some inaccuracies. There are for example two references to the EU, despite this being an ECtHR matter (the ECHR is a part of the Council of Europe, a separate body to the EU).

What's more, John Hirst, whose application led to the judgment in Hirst (no.2) above, is referred to as a "convicted axe murderer" (the Daily Mirror made the same mistake). This isn't true — a glance at Hirst (no.2) makes it clear that he was found guilty of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, rather than murder.

However, these problems aside the Mail coverage is largely accurate.

The Daily Star report does contain some more glaring errors. It says that the judgment "paves the way for the UK to keep its 1870 ban on lags taking part in elections", and that "the court gave its verdict on a case in Italy and said EU countries should be allowed to reach their own decisions."

As seen above, this isn't really true: the outright ban on prisoner voting in the UK will have to be overturned to some extent if the judgment is properly followed.

Neither is it true that "EU countries" are the only states affected by the judgment, as the Star claims. The Convention applies to 47 states, while the EU has only 27 member states.

So while neither story is without its problems, it does seem that on this occassion the Mail report is nearer the mark on the essentials of the verdict.

Most publications gave some measure of prominence to the issue of the fairly wide margin of discretion given to how states can implement the consequences of Scoppola.

The Daily Star was presumably trying to get to this when it referred to states being "allowed to reach their own decisions".

Overall, though, there's a lot to be pleased about.  With that said, it's a shame to see some old mistakes cropping up. The EU is not the same thing as the Council of Europe. It's a shame to see some new ones too — murder isn't the same as manslaughter.

Full Fact fights bad information

Bad information ruins lives. It promotes hate, damages people’s health, and hurts democracy. You deserve better.