The Sunday Times report that the government’s most senior legal officer is to make an unprecedented appearance before Britain’s highest court to oppose a bid by a child rapist and a murderer to win the right to vote in elections.
In a case starting tomorrow, Dominic Grieve, the attorney-general, will argue in the Supreme Court that parliament, rather than Europe, should decide prisoners’ voting rights.
Grieve’s decision to fight the case in person — the first time an attorney-general has appeared in the Supreme Court since it was established in 2009 — is a clear sign of the government’s concern about the claim, the latest round of Britain’s fight with Europe over prisoners’ votes.
George McGeoch, who befriended a deaf man and then murdered him by slashing his throat, and Peter Chester, who raped and strangled his seven-year-old niece, are using European law to claim the right to vote.
Experts are concerned that, if the claim is successful, it could hamper attempts by the government to give parliament the opportunity to assert its power over prisoners’ votes.
Parliament is to vote on whether to defy a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg that a blanket ban on prisoner voting has to end. MPs will be given the option of maintaining the blanket ban or introducing some voting rights.
McGeoch’s lawyers, however, plan to invoke European Union laws, which are separate from the human rights convention overseen by the Strasbourg judges.
Chester is seeking the right to vote in parliamentary and European elections. McGeoch claims he should be allowed to vote in European and Scottish parliamentary elections.
The European laws, unlike the convention, can be directly enforced by British courts without being subject to parliament. If McGeoch is successful, it could undermine the parliamentary vote and provoke fresh demands for powers to be repatriated from the EU.
Dominic Raab, the Tory MP for Esher and Walton and a former Foreign and Commonwealth Office lawyer, said: “The fact that the attorney-general is defending the case shows how serious an assault on our democracy it is.
“The EU’s backdoor attempt to dictate human rights to Britain is dangerous . . . and will strengthen calls for a wholesale renegotiation of British terms of [EU] membership. It is a battle we must win.”
McGeoch, 41, originally from Glasgow, was jailed for life in 1999 after he beat and smothered Eric Innes, a bakery worker, before slitting his throat. Since then he has held prison nurses hostage with a blade, slashed a fellow prisoner with broken glass and once escaped from custody.
Chester, from Blackpool, Lancashire, was handed a life sentence in 1978 for killing his niece at his sister’s home.
In 2009, he made an unsuccessful legal challenge to the ban on prisoner voting. In his ruling, the judge said the bid was “offensive to constitutional principles”.
However, European judges have refused to back down in the face of Britain’s defiance over votes for prisoners. Last week, Dean Spielmann, the president of the Strasbourg court, was highly critical of the British failure to implement its rulings.
“Such an attitude . . . undermines the whole system and it causes great damage to the credibility of the UK when it comes to promoting human rights in other parts of the world,” he told the BBC.
A government spokesman said: “The government has made its position on prisoner voting rights absolutely clear — we believe prisoner voting is a matter for national parliaments to decide.
“The attorney-general will strongly defend that position at the Supreme Court.”
Mark Leech editor of Converse the national newspaper for prisoners said the Supreme Court ‘should put the Goverment in its place”.
Mr Leech said: “In the same way that prison officers intervene to free a prison officeer taken hostage, so too should the Surpeme Court intervene and free the issue of prisoner voting which has been unlawfully taken hostage by successive governments.
“The UK is a signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights, and Judges of the ECHR have made clear the UK should either implement judgements of the ECHR or get out of the European Court altogether.
“The Supreme Court should put the Goverment in its place and tell it to implement the judgement on prisoner voting which politicians have disgracefully ignored now for eight years.”