…or a dissent more important than the decision.
This is one of two pieces written on UKSC Judgements handed down on 17th December 2014. The other, on Greater Glasgow Health Board v Doogan (and Another)  UKSC 68 can be found here.
The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom (UKSC) handed down two judgements this morning that had been heard in the last few months. One was the latest instalment in what seems to be the unending sage over whether Prisoners have the right to vote, with an #IndyRef twist thrown in…and gives an interesting glimpse of the thinking of some UKSC Justices.
Moohan (and Another) v The Lord Advocate  UKSC 67
The first judgement was that in the #IndyRef prisoners case where Mr. Moohan and a fellow inmate wanted the right to vote on 18th September 2014. This case was unusual in that, since the referendum would be held before the judgement would be ordinarily handed down, the UKSC made their overall decision known (the prisoners did not have the right to vote in the referendum) and the reasons would follow. Today we got the reasons.
The appellants relied on 4 key areas of law, both UK and International, to make their case, none of which successfully convinced the majority of the court that they had a right to vote.
The prisoners argued that, since the #IndyRef was potentially also a vote on leaving the EU (since iScotland would not necessarily be an EU member state upon independence), the Referendum was illegal under EU Law, which under s.29(2)(d) of the Scotland Act 1998, would make it an illegal Act of the Scottish Parliament.
This view was roundly rejected by the UKSC 7-0, for two reasons. The first was that there was no guarantee of what Yes vote means. The Draft Scottish Independence Bill (as it stood) would have made all UK-citizens born in Scotland ‘Scottish citizens’, and therefore no longer EU citizens, but this was not yet set in stone. Both sides conceded that negotiations to define the exact terms of Independence would take place if there was a Yes vote. Even if there was no change it would be the bill that removed EU Citizenship and not the Act that determined the Franchise for the Referendum that would be amenable to review. Even then, the court then noted that EU Law does not confer any right to vote in the first place, so the whole argument was fundamentally flawed.
The International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
It was also argued that, under wider Internatinoal Law, the ICCPR gave every citizen the right to vote in referendums. The United Nations Human Rights Commission have held in the past that this right applied in Referendums too, even those involving self-determination. The UKSC accepted this argument, but still denied the appeal – why? Because the ICCPR, while the UK is a signatory to the treaty, has not bee incorporated into UK Law i.e. at a domestic level nothing has changed. While in the international sphere the UK has a duty to comply with the ICCPR, at UK/Scottish Level, the Scottish Parliament doesn’t have to and no domestic court can stop it breaking the terms. So while it’s a good point, in reality, nothing is changed.
Common Law Right to Vote
It was then argued that, even if statute didn’t allow prisoners to vote, the UK being a developed liberal democracy, the common law afforded everyone (subject to only essential limitations re. age) the vote anyway as a fundamental constitutional principle. Again this argument was universally rejected.
While it was agreed that the right to vote was a fundamental constitutional principle, it was made clear that this principle was derived from Statute, not common law. From the 1st parliaments to now, the franchise had been extended bit-by-bit by Acts of Parliament (as it seems will happen soon in Scotland) and never by judges. The court saw no reason why it should take such a radical step now, though Lord Hodge did say that were parliament to markedly curtail the franchise, then judges may have the ability to prevent it. This is a bold statement to make given the notion of Parliamentary Sovereignty is still the centre of UK jurisprudence. In the infamous case of AXA v Scottish Ministers, Lord Reed did suggest that in the face of legislation that went against the very concept of natural justice the court may step in, but here Hodge is talking about a defending a statutory concept (the franchise) and not a common law or natural law concept (the rule of law, in the case of AXA). Nonetheless, the prisoners remain voteless.
European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)
And now I come the main argument – and the first put forward in the case, but last discussed by me because there’s a lot more to say. If any argument was going to succeed, it would be that under Article 3 of Protocol 1 (A3P1) of the ECHR the prisoners had a human right to vote. To understand how the court voted on this (5-2 rejecting the argument), it’s best to have a look at the exact wording of the right:
The High Contracting Parties shall hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.
The words are explicit in that A3P1 concerns “elections” regarding the “choice of legislature”. It had preciously been held, in the UKSC and in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) that elections to the legislature does not include any other kind of vote. This includes presidential elections (which are to the executive) and all referendums, however important they may be. The case offered in support for both these proposition was Niedźwiedź v Poland (2008) 47 EHRR SE6. This concerned a Presidential election and a referendum on Poland’s joining the EU. The ECtHR said that the A3P1 did not apply in these cases because neither were elections to the legislature. So the line of reasoning the majority of the court followed was (put crudely):
- A3P1 concerns elections regarding the choice of legislature.
- It’s scope has not been extended to referendums before.
- The #IndyRef is a referendum.
- Therefore, A3P1 does not apply in this case.
But what is key here is the fact that 2 UKSC Judges (Lords Kerr and Wilson) dissented from the majority view, Lord Kerr writing the dissenting judgement. They were not entirely convinced that previous UKSC an ECtHR judgements were entirely on point given the nature of the 2014 Referendum. Previously, when the courts had ruled that A3P1 didn’t apply to referendums, they were referendums on EU accession, changing the voting system and constitutional amendment. Never has the court had to consider a situation where the vote was, quite literally, choosing the legislature: Westminster or Holyrood.
Lord Kerr (the minx) threw Lord Hodge’s words back at him from a case re. Prisoners’ right to vote in the 2011 AV Referendum, where Hodge had said, “the nature of the referendum at issue” suggested that A3P1 could not be applied in that case. Kerr suggested, therefore, that this meant there could be a referendum when the subject was such that A3P1 did apply – and SURELY this was it. He argued that previously the provision didn’t apply because previous plebiscites were “purely consultative [in] character and there was no legal obligation to organise such a referendum.” He said that there was intergovernmental agreement to implement the result of the #IndyRef and the referendum had a solid legal foundation (The Scottish Independence Referendum Act 2013). This, along with the fact that political parties had taken such hard-and-fast positions on the referendum, meant the test (which he believed had been wrongly applied in the past) was passed and, the ECHR applied and the prisoners should have the vote.
As it ended, however, Lords Kerr and Wilson were in the minority and the prisoners did not have a European Right to a vote.
So, in the end, the reasoning was much as was suspected. But, in some ways, the dissent is far more interesting than the decision. Lord Kerr makes an interesting suggestion that not just common law and natural justice rights can be protected by the court from a tyrannical government, but even those firmly and solely based in statute, such as the right to vote. This is a brand new idea (and one I’m not entirely certain of), and it will be interesting to see how this develops in the future (if at all). But the big thing was that, for the first time in it’s history, it was seriously reasoned that the ECHR may, in some very restricted circumstances, give prisoners the right to vote, not only in parliamentary elections (which we know it does) but in referendums as well. Whether this point of view is ever adopted at a European Level, we’ll have to wait till the next #IndyRef.