In an article in April this year, we noted that, as sentenced prisoners would not be allowed to vote in the general election in May, the general election would be incompatible with prisoners' human rights. We discussed what the potential implications of this would be. Six months on from the general election, this topic is, once again, the subject of debate and still the precise implications of the incompatible nature of the general election remain unclear.

Following the successful challenge by a prisoner, John Hirst, the UK's blanket ban on sentenced prisoners voting was declared unlawful by the grand chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in October 2005. Before the House of Commons this week, Parliamentary Secretary Mark Harper stated that the coalition Government accept that the law requires to be changed. He noted that "this is not a choice; it is a legal obligation."

Mr Harper further advised that Ministers are currently considering how to implement the judgment, and he identified a number of issues that will be considered in the process, including which prisoners may be enfranchised. He was unable to provide any further detail of how and when steps will be taken to fulfil this legal obligation.

The debate in the House of Commons has also confirmed that the costs to the taxpayer are likely to be significant. Mr Harper, advised that there are more than 1,000 pending cases raised by prisoners, and he warned of the "real risk that judges will award millions of pounds in damages to be paid by our taxpayers to prisoners who have been denied the vote".

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