ECJ rules that the blanket ban on prisoner voting may be unlawful and result in more claims against the Government's policy

In an important judgment today, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has confirmed that the UK’s blanket bans on prisoners voting in European elections is likely to be unlawful.

The decision opens up the UK Government to claims for compensation by prisoners unable to vote in elections held in May 2014 and further legal action if the UK Government refuses to take action to allow prisoners to vote in the May 2019 elections.

This case, Thierry Delvigne v Commune de Lesparre Medoc and Prefet de la Gironde, concerns a claim being brought by a French prisoner, Thierry Delvigne, who was unable to vote in European elections.

Mr Delvigne, a convicted murderer, argued that not being allowed to vote in European elections was contrary to Article 39(2) of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union which states that “members of the European Parliament shall be elected by direct universal suffrage in a free and secret ballot”.

At the time of his conviction, French law banned those convicted of criminal offences punishable by at least five years’ imprisonment from voting. The purpose of this type of judgment (called a ‘preliminary ruling’) is to ensure that European Union (EU) law is interpreted correctly and in a standard way throughout all 28 member states.

In cases of uncertainty about a piece of EU law, a national court in one of the member states is able to refer a matter to the ECJ for a ruling on its meaning. In this case, the French Court in which Mr Delvigne commenced the claim referred the issue of whether or not such a ban was lawful to the ECJ.

In today’s judgment, the Court found that the ban imposed on Mr Delvigne was “proportionate” and therefore lawful as it took account of the nature and gravity of the criminal offence committed and the duration of the penalty and was subject to a review.

It concluded that it was possible for member states to maintain a ban on those convicted of serious crimes from voting. However, this ruling strongly suggests that a blanket ban that prevents all prisoners, whatever the seriousness of their crime, from voting, as is the case in the UK, is unlawful.

Sean Humber, the solicitor at Leigh Day who made successful claims on behalf of over 550 prisoners to the European Court of Human Rights in relation to the voting ban, stated:

“This important judgment suggests that the UK’s blanket ban on prisoner voting, which makes no distinction between the seriousness of the crimes committed, is contrary to EU law and a breach of our domestic law, piling yet further pressure on the Government to take action to allow at least some prisoners the vote.

“The European Court of Human Right has repeatedly found that the blanket ban on voting is a breach of prisoners’ human rights. The Parliamentary Select Committee set up to consider the matter has also recommended giving prisoners serving shorter sentences, the vote.

“David Cameron says that the idea of giving prisoners the vote makes him feel ‘physically sick’. However, for someone with such a weak stomach, it is surprising that the prospect of breaching the rule of law and opening the taxpayer up to numerous compensation claims leaves him so unaffected.

“As a result of this judgment, it is likely that prisoners convicted of less serious offences will now be able to take legal action against the Government for being denied the vote in the 2014 European elections. In addition, the Government will inevitably leave itself open to legal action from prisoners facing the prospect of being unable to vote in the European elections in 2019 if it does not take action now.

“The Prime Minister has announced proudly that he intends to breach domestic, EU and international human rights law on this issue. Unfortunately for him, our legal system is not some kind of a la carte menu that allows you to obey the laws you like and ignore the rest.”