Prisoner Voting and the Rule of Law: The Irony of Non-Compliance

Guest Contributor - 20th March 2013

By John Hirst –

Prisoners’ voting rights remain a vexed issue in the United Kingdom. Following the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) decision in Hirst v UK (No 2),the United Kingdom was given until 22 November 2012 to repeal its blanket ban on prisoner voting. The UK failed to comply, resulting in a reprimand from the ECtHR, but no sanctions. In this post, John Hirst, the applicant in Hirst (No 2), comments on the failure to comply with the ECtHR’s order.


On 30 March 2004 I won in Hirst v UK (No2) and on 6 October 2005 the UK lost its appeal to the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR. The problem is that the UK refuses to accept it has lost the case and has spent the last seven years ignoring the ruling and its binding force under Article 46 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The absurd situation means that individual petition to the Court is meaningless if a State chooses to breach its international law obligations. The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has so far refused to invoke Rule 11 ‘infringement proceedings’ against the UK and refer the case back to the Court under Protocol 14 to the ECHR, which came into force with the Lisbon Treaty. Enforcement is a problem.

There can be no compromise with human rights. If Britain is to become a democracy then there needs to be universal suffrage, including votes for all convicted prisoners.  At the Interlaken Conference on the Reform of the European Court of Human Rights in February 2010 it was mooted that human rights should assume the status of higher law. Rather than scrap the Human Rights Act  it needs amending to include Articles 1 and 13 of the ECHR. Section 2 must be amended to make sure that the ECHR and decisions of the ECtHR are binding on the executive, Parliament and the judiciary.

Hirst (No2)started as a revolution in democracy. The State demanded that I reform to gain release from prison. I reformed. I now demand that the State undergoes reform. That there are now over 3,500 prisoners voting rights cases backlogged at the ECtHR is evidence that the UK has systemic structural failings in common with emerging democracies formerly part of the Eastern Bloc. The UK is focusing on reform of the ECtHR, when the Interlaken Conference also requires Member States to reform. Either we vote for human rights, democracy and rule of law or tolerate living in an undemocratic  State.

John Hirst was the litigant in Hirst v UK and is a campaigner for prisoners’ rights. 

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