The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled finally that UK prisoners must given the right to vote under UK law. The UK government has now exhausted its appeal avenues, with the ECHR dismissing the UK government's request for an appeal against its original decision made in October 2005.
As a result, the UK has six months in which it must draw up proposals to end the ban on prisoners voting.
The ban has been in place in the UK since 1870. It is considered by many citizens and politicians alike as a principle of fundamental importance.
The right of prisoners to vote has been continually litigated in the UK and the EU since the 2001 High Court case in which John Hirst, a convicted murderer, sued the UK government over the ban and lost. He subsequently went on to win in the ECHR in 2004 and on appeal in 2006.
The ECHR has not ruled that all UK prisoners must be given voting rights. Rather, it has ruled that the UK cannot impose a blanket ban on all prisoners exercising the right to vote. A blanket ban, the ECHR said, is contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights.
The litigation has resulted in heated debates on whether the ban should be lifted from some types of prisoners but not others, in order to satisfy the ECHR ruling. Members of Parliament earlier this year considered lifting the ban from prisoners serving less than one year, up from the four years proposed previously.
The implications of the ECHR ruling could be significant. It has been more than five years since the ECHR made its ruling, in which time the UK government has failed to implement the ruling. The UK government will now face the prospect of paying compensation to more than 2,500 prisoners who, have officially complained about being unlawfully disenfranchised.
The ECHR's decision last year resulted in two UK prisoners being awarded €5,000 for what was deemed to be a breach of their human rights in being unable to vote. The costs to UK taxpayers for continued non-compliance with the ECHR's ruling could be significant.
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