Britain is well placed this autumn to bring about fundamental reforms at the European Court of Human Rights. Perhaps by way of a reward, the court has said the government can wait another year or more before taking steps to lift the ban on voting by prisoners.
It's now six years since the Hirst judgment, in which the court's grand chamber — its final appeal tier — decided that Britain's blanket ban breached the first protocol to the human rights convention, which guarantees free elections. Confirming that decision last year in the case of Greens and MT v the United Kingdom, the court told Britain it "must introduce legislative proposals" by October 11, 2011 to amend section 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, which disenfranchises serving prisoners.
How could the government avoid complying with this order? It took advantage of the fact that another country is trying to overturn the Hirst judgment. Italy has persuaded the grand chamber to hear what amounts to an appeal against a ruling earlier this year in favour of Franco Scoppola, a murderer. He had established that his country's indiscriminate ban on voting by prisoners serving five years or more also breached the convention.
A hearing has been scheduled for November 2 and the grand chamber is not expected to rule before next spring at the earliest. There is no reason to think that it will overturn its ruling in Hirst. But, just in case it does, the court recently told Britain that it would be extending the government's deadline for legislation until six months after the ruling. Ministers breathed a sigh of relief, telling the joint committee on human rights that they welcomed the extended deadline.