Wednesday 23 May 2012 by Jonathan Rayner

Britain has six months to draft new laws to end its blanket ban on prisoners voting in elections or face penalties totalling millions of pounds, it has emerged following a ruling from Europe's human rights court.

The court ruled that Britain's 'automatic and indiscriminate' disqualification of all prisoners from voting was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, but reaffirmed that it was up to individual states to decide how to legislate to remove these indiscriminate bans - as it held in the case of Hirst v UK in 2005.

Hirst had been the first UK prisoner to challenge his disenfranchisement. Some 2,500 similar applications have since been lodged with the court, with the number continuing to grow. The government has six months starting from yesterday to bring forward legislative proposals to amend the law and end the blanket ban. Failure to comply could see the UK facing financial claims from all these applicants, costing millions of pounds.

Yesterday's ruling by 17 judges sitting in the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights arose from the case of Italian national Franco Scoppola who, upon receiving a life sentence for murder and other crimes, forfeited his right to vote.

Scoppola appealed to the court, which found that his disenfranchisement was not in breach of the convention because in Italian law disenfranchisement depends upon the length of the sentence and is not 'automatic and indiscriminate' as it is in the UK.

Prison Reform Trust director Juliet Lyon said: 'People are sent to prison to lose their liberty, not their identity. The UK's outdated ban on sentenced prisoners voting, based on the 19th-century concept of civic death, has no place in a modern democracy and is legally and morally unsustainable. The European court has made clear in today's judgment that the UK has legal obligations to overturn the blanket ban.'

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