In the Media

European judges have no right to rule on prisoner voting, says Grieve

PUBLISHED November 2, 2011

Attorney general calls for politicians to be given back powers over the 'culture of their own particular state' in address to European court of human rights National parliaments not European judges should decide whether prisoners are entitled to the vote, the attorney general has told the human rights court in Strasbourg. In a personal submission aimed at redefining sovereignty within the entire European judicial system, Dominic Grieve QC called for politicians to be given back powers over "the culture of their own particular state". Addressing the upper appeals chamber of the European court of human rights (ECHR) on Wednesday, the attorney general raised fundamental constitutional questions about the relative role of parliament and judges in Strasbourg. One of the human rights cases that has caused most resentment in the UK, particularly among Tory MPs, was the decision that prisoners should be given voting rights. The government has not explained how it will implement the ECHR judgment but has indicated that it will do the minimum necessary. Grieve wants to strengthen the principle of subsidiarity, the idea that national jurisdictions should have greater powers to interpret convention rights. In his statement to the grand chamber of the ECHR, in relation to an Italian case on prisoners' voting rights, Grieve said: "It is not only in the UK that some or all convicted prisoners are unable to vote. "A significant number of other Council of Europe states adhere to the reasonably held view that there should be restrictions, including in some cases a complete prohibition, on voting by convicted prisoners. "How are these deep philosophical differences of view about social policy to be resolved? We submit that this is, and should be, a political question ? by which I mean a question for democratically elected representatives to resolve, against the background of the circumstances and political culture of their own particular state. "The view that sensitive issues of social policy of this kind should be decided by national parliaments is, we say, entirely consistent with the jurisprudence of the court. It is reflected in the court's doctrine of the margin of appreciation." Acknowledging the doctrine of the margin of appreciation, he added, would result in the ECHR only intervening when "the decision of the national authorities is manifestly without reasonable foundation". Grieve continued: "Provided that restrictions on the right to vote are not arbitrary and do not prejudice the free expression of the opinion of the people, different states are properly entitled under the scheme of the convention [on human rights] to take different views of the appropriate width of the franchise, in relation to serving, convicted prisoners and otherwise. "That, after all is what the margin of appreciation means, the legitimacy of different solutions and different approaches between states to the same social issue. Prisoners' voting is perhaps the best example one could find." Grieve's speech will be seen as a clear statement of intent to reform the European judicial system. Next month the UK takes up the rotating chairmanship of the governing body of the Council of Europe, the body that oversees the convention (under which the human rights court operates). Last month the lord chief justice, Lord Judge, told the House of Lords that British courts are not fully bound by decisions of the Strasbourg-based court but must only "take them into account". Precisely what that entails is disputed. European court of human rights Human rights Dominic Grieve Prisons and probation UK criminal justice European Union Council of Europe Owen Bowcott © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds