In today’s Grand Chamber judgment in the case of Scoppola v. Italy (n° 3) (application no. 126/05), which is final1, the European Court of Human Rights held, by a majority, that there had been:
no violation of Article 3 of Protocol No. 1 (right to free elections) to the European Convention on Human Rights.
The case concerned the applicant’s disenfranchisement following his criminal conviction.
Court says that it is up to member States to decide how to regulate the ban on prisoners voting
The Court has confirmed the Hirst (no. 2) v. the United Kingdom (no. 74025/01) judgment of October 2005, again holding that general, automatic and indiscriminate disenfranchisement of all serving prisoners, irrespective of the nature or gravity of their offences, is incompatible with Article 3 of Protocol No. 1 (right to free elections) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
However, it accepted the United Kingdom government’s argument that each State has a wide discretion as to how it regulates the ban, both as regards the types of offence that should result in the loss of the vote and as to whether disenfranchisement should be ordered by a judge in an individual case or should result from general application of a law.
The Court found that the disenfranchisement of convicted prisoners provided for under Italian law was not like the general, automatic, indiscriminate measure that led it to find a violation of Article 3 of Protocol No. 1 in the Hirst (no. 2) v. the United Kingdom case. Italian law took care to adapt the measure to the particular circumstances of a case, particularly the length of the sentence.
The applicant, Franco Scoppola, is an Italian national who was born in 1940 and lives in Parma (Italy). In 1999, following a violent family argument, he killed his wife and wounded one of his sons. In 2002 the Assize Court sentenced him to life imprisonment for murder, attempted murder, ill-treatment of members of his family and unauthorised possession of a firearm.
Under the Italian Criminal Code his life sentence entailed a lifetime ban from holding any public office, which in turn meant the permanent forfeiture of his right to vote. Appeals by the applicant against the ban were unsuccessful.
The Court of Cassation dismissed an appeal on points of law in 2006, pointing out that only prison sentences of at least five years or life sentences entailed permanent disenfranchisement.
Following a judgment of the European Court of Human Rights of 17 September 2009 in another case brought by Mr Scoppola (Scoppola v. Italy (no. 2)), in which the Court held that there had been a violation of Articles 6 (right to a fair trial) and 7 (no punishment without law) of the Convention, the Court of Cassation commuted his life sentence to 30 years’ imprisonment.
Implications for the judgment Greens and M.T. v. the United Kingdom (nos. 60041/08 & 60054/08)
On 23 November 2010 the Court adopted a judgment in the case of Greens and M.T. It noted that there had been no amendment to the law in the UK since the Hirst (no. 2) judgment in 2005. This had led to a situation where approximately 2,500 similar applications had been lodged with the Court, with the number continuing to grow.
The Court did not consider it appropriate to give guidance as to the content of future legislative proposals, which was a decision for the Government. However, it took the view that the lengthy delay to date demonstrated the need to set a timetable for the introduction of proposals to amend the electoral law. The Court therefore held that the UK Government should bring forward legislative proposals to amend the law within six months of the date on which Greens and M.T. became final.
The Government was further required to enact the relevant legislation within any time-frame decided by the Committee of Ministers, the executive arm of the Council of Europe, which supervises the implementation of the Court’s judgments. The Court did not award any damages to the applicants and held that in future cases no financial compensation would be payable.
On 11 April 2011 the Panel of the Grand Chamber refused the applicants’ request to refer the case to the Grand Chamber. The judgment therefore became final on that date.
On 30 August 2011, the Court examined the UK Government’s request that the timetable set out in its judgment in Greens and M.T. be deferred to expire six months from the Grand Chamber judgment in Scoppola (no. 3). The Court expressed the view that further unnecessary delay could not be contemplated, having regard to the time which had already passed since the Court’s ruling in Hirst (no. 2).
However, it considered it reasonable to grant an extension of six months, to start running from the date of the Grand Chamber judgment in Scoppola (no. 3).
The delivery of that judgment, which is final1 immediately, means that the six month period referred to in Greens and M.T. begins to run today. The Court indicated in its judgment in Greens and M.T. that, if the UK Government complied with the time-frame, it would proceed to strike out all the similar pending cases.