Government ignores High Court, won't change prisoner voting law

The Government has now given it's answer - "The Government has no current plans to introduce legislation allowing prisoners to vote."

When the Government passed the Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Bill in 2010 it chose to ignore the submissions from civil society groups, it chose to ignore the Attorney-General, and it chose to ignore the NZ Bill of Rights Act. It also ignored the landmark case in the European Court of Human Rights case where a similar ban on prisoner voting was found to be against the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Government has now chosen to also ignore the High Court of New Zealand and its declaration that the law is inconsistent with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

 

Vindictive

This was a vindictive bill, designed to further punish prisoners by taking away their right to vote. While being a prisoner obviously means that you lose many of the freedoms and privileges enjoyed in our society, there is no natural causal link between being in prison and being unable to vote.

The Council's position is that, as with our other rights, the right to vote shouldn't be unreasonably withheld. As strong supporters of a free and democratic society, we think that prisoners should be encouraged to think of themselves as being part of our society and having a stake in its future as part of their rehabilitation, and that participating in elections is part of this.

We note that our society has gone back and forth on this issue as this line from the bill shows: "The bill as introduced would reinstate the law in this respect as it was between 1956 and 1975 and between 1977 and 1993."

In our letter, we asked the Government to introduce a new bill to amend the offending law and that "this would be a positive step, and show that the NZ Government takes the NZ Bill of Rights Act and civil liberties in New Zealand seriously." The Government has once again shown that they do not.

 

The weak place of the Bill of Rights in our constitution

Unfortunately this decision also reveals just how toothless our courts are when it comes to Bill of Rights issues. This was a historic decision - the first time that a court has made a declaration that the law was inconsistent with the NZ Bill of Rights Act - and the Government has just shrugged it off.

It is a sad irony that this decision by the courts appears to have weakened the position of the Bill of Rights Act in our system rather then improving it.

The Council believes that the position of the NZ Bill of Rights within New Zealand's constitution needs to be strengthened. In our submission to the Constitutional Review we said that we "...would strongly recommend that the provisions of the BoRA be set above all other Statutes: Our strong preference is that the provisions of the BoRA be incorporated in a constitutional codification..." while also allowing that other lesser changes could also help.

Unfortunately we can add the Constitutional Review to the list of improvements to New Zealand that the government has chosen to ignore. We can only hope that future goverments will pick up this issue and provide better protection for New Zealanders' rights and civil liberties.

 


Full text of letter from Minister of Justice Hon Amy Adams

(Undated - received 2nd December 2015)

Thank you for your correspondence of 14 September 2015 about prisoner voting and the steps the Government proposes to take in response to the High Court declaration of inconsistency.

The Government has no current plans to introduce legislation allowing prisoners to vote.

Parliament considered the issue of consistency with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 when it passed the Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Bill (the Bill). The Attorney General tabled a report in Parliament soon after the Bill was introduced, pursuant to section 7 of the Bill of Rights Act. This report, that the Bill appeared to be inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act, was discussed during the parliamentary debates on the Bill.

Parliament may form a different view from the Attorney-General about whether a particular right of freedom is limited or whether the limitation is justified. In this case, Parliament decided to pass the Bill. The High Court declaration of inconsistency has no impact on this decision.

Thank you for writing.

Yours sincerely,

Hon Amy Adams

Minister of Justice

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