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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 November 2006, 12:39 GMT
Prisoners who take on the system
By Jon Silverman
Legal affairs analyst

Heroin syringe and spoon
The "cold turkey" case is one of many lawsuits brought by inmates

Nearly 200 prisoners are to get a total of 750,000 after being forced to stop taking drugs by going "cold turkey".

This raises a wider issue of inmates who sue the prison system.

Those who argue that the "cold turkey" compensation award is further evidence of the pernicious effects of the Human Rights Act on British public policy are not supported by the facts.

Long before the act became law, the British government was being obliged to make law changes as a result of losing cases at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

In the year before New Labour came to power, the third highest number of applications to the court came from Britain, after Italy and Turkey.

Over 30 years, the UK government has lost 37 out of 80 cases taken to the court.

The UK government has continued to resist a "human rights culture" in penal policy
Jon Silverman

Many of these cases were taken by British prisoners. Indeed, they have almost certainly made more use of the European Convention than any other single group of European citizen.

Through this route, prisoners won the right to marry; the right not to have letters to their lawyers opened; and the right to change their names for religious purposes.

But in the "cold turkey" case, the Home Office's thinking may have been influenced by a European Court judgment of 2003 which ruled that the prison service had subjected a heroin addict to "inhuman and degrading treatment" while in prison custody.

Even after the NHS became responsible for prison health care in 2004, the issue of offering methadone to addicts has continued to be a contentious one.

Different approach

By contrast, in the Netherlands, doctors and prison governors can be taken to court if they do not accept an individual's right to treatment and access to methadone prescriptions.

Indeed, many lawyers regard the Netherlands as the centre of European human rights culture, not the UK.

Veteran lawyer Stephen Jakobi has formed a campaigning organisation called Just Umbrella.

"When it comes to protection of the victim - however you define that term - Holland has a good record and so do some of the Scandinavian countries," he said.

"In countries which do not have an adversarial system, like France and Spain, you find fewer lawyers willing to take on the state and consequently, fewer human rights advances."

Even so, and despite the impression gained from sections of the media, the UK government has continued to resist a "human rights culture" in penal policy in areas such as private family visits, access to public services and social security rights.

And Britain, unlike 18 member states of the Council of Europe, denies the right to vote to sentenced prisoners.

But in 2005, the European Court ruled that unlawful, thus setting the stage for another acrimonious battle over the "human rights culture".


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