Norwich burglar demands right to vote

Ben KendallA Norwich prisoner has threatened to bring a landmark lawsuit against the government for preventing him from voting in the upcoming General Election.Ben Kendall

A Norwich prisoner has threatened to bring a landmark lawsuit against the government for preventing him from voting in the upcoming General Election.

Leon Punchard, 19, a burglar from Motum Road, North Earlham, is currently serving an 18-month jail term in HMP Norwich for stealing a television from a house in the city. When sentenced at Norwich Crown Court in December, he asked for another 68 offences, including theft, to be taken into account by the judge.

But now he is set to challenge the government in a test case which could open up voting rights to around a third of the 84,000 currently in custody nationwide.

Inmates have traditionally been banned from voting in UK elections as part of their punishment. But five years ago the European Court of Human Rights ruled it was illegal for ministers to deny voting rights to all prisoners.

Since then the Government has held two public consultations on the issue but has not changed the law. A spokesman for the law firm said a letter was sent to Justice Secretary Jack Straw earlier this year 'requesting immediate steps' be taken to allow

Punchard to vote.

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Solicitors Leigh Day & Co said that unless immediate action was taken, the election could be held under conditions which breached the European Court ruling.

A spokesman added: 'No such steps have been taken and, with the date for registering to vote having now come and gone, Mr Punchard is barred from voting.

'With no other remedies available to him under the domestic legal system, Mr Punchard has no alternative but return to the European Court seeking a declaration and compensation from the UK Government for their breach of one of his most fundamental convention rights.'

Punchard was seeking a 'declaration and compensation from the UK government for its failure to take the necessary steps to allow him to vote'.

Punchard is due to be released in July - two months after the election. The law firm's spokesman said Punchard was jailed for an offence committed in Norfolk in October last year.

Last year, Justice Minister Michael Wills confirmed it was 'unavoidable' that some inmates would be given voting rights.

A policy paper published in April last year suggested prisoners serving sentences of up to four years could be allowed to vote.

In February, the Association of Prisoners said it was pursuing a compensation claim against the Government for blocking prisoners from voting. It said it wanted at least �1,000 for every offender in England.

Ben Gunn, general secretary of the Association of Prisoners, said the Government had defied the court for too long.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: 'Sentenced prisoners' voting should be a right, and a civic duty, as it is in almost all other Council of Europe countries.

'Picking and choosing which laws to obey and which to disregard is a terrible message for any government to give to its citizens'

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: 'The Human Rights Act does not limit Parliament's freedom to pass legislation.

If primary legislation is incompatible with the ECHR, the domestic courts may make a declaration of incompatibility but the provisions remain in force.

'It is for Parliament to decide how to respond to that declaration, taking into account the UK's international obligations.'

t Do you have a crime story for the Evening News? Contact crime correspondent Ben Kendall on 01603 772423 or email

Where Norwich politicians stand on prisoners' voting rights:

Antony Little, Conservative candidate for Norwich South, said: 'I am absolutely opposed to giving criminals the vote. Whilst they are on remand or awaiting sentence they should be allowed to vote as they have not yet been found guilty. Once they have been released and have served their time they should be able to participate in society and vote like anyone else.

'But when they are serving a sentence for a crime it is part of their sanction that they are denied this right. I think a lot of hard working and honest people would be shocked if criminals were given the right to vote while behind bars.'

John Cook, Labour candidate for Norwich North, said: 'I think constituents in Norwich North will have limited sympathy for criminals who have been locked up for crimes which are likely to have affected them and their neighbours.

'My father was a police officer and he would say that all prisoners are volunteers. If this individual is so passionate about his right to vote, he should have thought about that before he broke the law.'

David Stephen, Lib Dem candidate for Norwich North, said: 'We want to look at the whole criminal justice system to concentrate on rehabilitating criminals and reducing crime.

'The justice system punishes criminals and to take away their vote is a further punishment which is not warranted.'