Page last updated at 13:33 GMT, Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Convicted murderer loses vote bid

Peter Chester, courtesy of Blackpool Gazette
Chester has been in jail for more than 30 years for rape and murder

A convicted murderer has lost a legal battle to be given the right to vote in elections while serving a prison term.

Peter Chester was jailed in 1977 for raping and strangling his niece in Blackpool and is deemed too dangerous to be allowed out of jail on licence.

Lawyers for Chester had argued the ban breached the inmate's human rights.

But Mr Justice Burton threw out the claim, saying Chester's legally-aided application had been "wholly inappropriate" and offensive.

Ministers are already considering changing the law after a European Court of Human Rights ruling in 2005 described the existing law that bars all inmates from voting as a blunt instrument.

Dismissing Chester's argument on all grounds, the judge said the case would have cost the taxpayer tens of thousands of pounds and amounted to an "impermissible" attempt to force the courts to interfere with Parliament.

He said that it was entirely up to Parliament to decide whether criminals sentenced to life imprisonment should be allowed to vote - and not for the courts to change the law.

Chester's bid had been "offensive to constitutional principles" and a pre-emptive strike to try to force the government's hand, he said.

Mr Justice Burton also refused permission to appeal, saying: "The application is hopeless."

Child killer

Chester, also known as Peter Chester Speakman, had denied raping and killing seven-year-old Donna Marie Gillbanks, who was found strangled at her home in Blackpool in 1977.

A ballot box
Prison inmates
The Royal Family
The criminally insane
People convicted of election-related corruption

He has passed his minimum 20 year tariff but the Parole Board has refused to release him on licence from Wakefield Prison.

He began his legal campaign to vote after another prisoner, John Hirst, won his 2005 case at the European Court of Human Rights. Hirst successfully argued that the bar on all prisoners voting was discriminatory because it did not take into account that some may have been rehabilitated.

That European Court ruling led to a two-stage Ministry of Justice consultation on how to best change.

The consultation, which recently ended, set out a number of options, including allowing prisoners who are sentenced to up to four years the right to vote.

But ministers categorically ruled out giving the vote to anyone serving more than four years or jailed for life.

Lawyers for Chester had argued that, irrespective of that consultation, the courts were obliged to reinterpret the existing law because of what the European Court said in 2005.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "It's now over five years since the Victorian blanket ban on prisoners voting was declared unlawful so it is hardly surprising that some prisoners are challenging the delay by going back to the courts.

"The government is desperately trying to kick this issue into the long grass because it's more worried about the politics of giving prisoners the vote before the next general election."

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