Ever since the United Kingdom ratified the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), as far back as 1950, for the most part it has seemed that this international law has been working very well for us. Indeed, the Human Rights Act 1998 was seen as an overdue, final acceptance of the laws contained within the convention. The previous Labour Government were determined to leave some kind of legacy for their period of administration, and this Act of Parliament is probably the most remembered.
However, and it really is a big “however”, the ECHR has been hitting the news a lot recently as the European Court of Human Rights has clashed with the coalition Government over the issue of prisoners having the right to vote in elections. The Government are working very hard to find out if there is any way around this issue; they appear to be determined to extend this right only to prisoners who are serving shorter tariffs (four years left on a sentence appears to be the most popular option at this time).
This is a hugely controversial issue! One where there would appear to be two separate schools of thought. On the one hand, many people believe that a prisoner should completely lose his or her right to vote. Such people maintain that prisoners should be punished to such an extent that they forfeit the right to participate in democratic voting procedures. On the other hand, other people seem to go along with the current view of the coalition Government, in that people serving a life sentence should not be able to decide on the outcome of an election in a society where they no longer have any participation. The Government recognise the fact that there would be a huge outcry if prisoners convicted of the most heinous crimes were permitted to vote in elections.
If the Government were able to find a compromise on this issue, surely it would be fair to allow a prisoner who is due for release over the next term of a government to have a say on the political persuasion of the administration that would be ruling his or her country upon release? Upon release, prisoners are expected to merge back into this society, and many people feel strongly that this is all a necessary part of rehabilitating such individuals.
Unscrupulous lawyers have recently started to evaluate another part of the ECHR which may mean that prisoners are entitled to be paid welfare benefits whilst they are in prison. Indeed, some notorious criminal names have been brandished around lately, suggesting that they may be entitled to windfalls, and this has left the general public fuming over the prospect of taxpayers having to fork out potential billions of pounds to people who are incarcerated as a form of punishment. You would be hard pushed to find an individual who agrees with this step – after all, it already costs vast sums of taxpayers’ money to detain a prisoner at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
The Government appear to have been under the impression that they can bide their time until later on in the year when the UK will have the opportunity to make reforms to the ECHR. Lord Woolf (most senior judge in the UK from 2000 to 2005) has pointed out to the Government that the possibility of making any sort of reform to the ECHR is remote, to say the least. He reminded us all that in order to make any such amendment, the UK would have to persuade another 47 European countries, and this will always be exceptionally difficult.
The next option put forward by the Government was to create a completely British “Bill of Rights”. This would basically incorporate the majority of articles under the ECHR but would allow us to derogate from and/or amend the articles that we are currently in conflict with. The Director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, made a very good point on this possibility, stating that the Human Rights Act 1998 was already a statute that could be deemed in the same light as a Bill of Rights for the UK.
One possibility does seem to be abundantly clear at the moment, and that is that the UK Government does not have any intention of taking the country out of the Council of Europe. However, if those troublesome lawyers continue to open Pandora’s box over the welfare benefits issue for prisoners, public opinion may well move the Government’s hand in an opposing direction. There is no denying the fact that this is one highly emotive and interesting area of law for our country at the moment, and one almost dreads discovering what the next issue to rear its head is going to be. Best keep an eye on this site over the coming months; you can rest assured that we will report back with any news