In a landmark decision, the High Court has today upheld the fundamental human right to vote, finding that the Howard Government had acted unlawfully and unconstitutionally in imposing a blanket ban denying prisoners the vote.
In 2006, the Howard Government passed legislation which denied all prisoners the right to vote. This law was challenged in the High Court by Vickie Roach, an Aboriginal woman who is a prisoner at the Dame Phyllis Frost Prison in Melbourne. In orders made today, the High Court struck down the blanket prohibition on prisoners voting. The Court upheld the validity, however, of the law providing that prisoners serving a sentence of three years or longer are not entitled to vote.
The decision of the High Court is a victory for representative democracy, accountable government, the rule of law and fundamental human rights. With Aboriginal Australians incarcerated at a rate of almost 13 times that of their fellow Australians, it is also a vindication of Aboriginal rights.
Speaking after the decision was handed down, Philip Lynch, Director of the Human Rights Law Resource Centre which ran the case, said, OThis is a common sense decision. The Howard Government disenfranchised prisoners on the spurious ground that to do so would promote respect for the social contract and the rule of law. Far from achieving this, denial of the fundamental human right to vote results in social exclusion, isolation, resentment and unaccountable and unrepresentative government. This is particularly undesirable given that the overwhelming majority of prisoners will be released at some stage.¹ Mr Lynch said that the supreme courts of Canada, South Africa and Europe had, over the last ten years, reached the same conclusion.
Mr Lynch paid tribute to Vickie Roach for taking her fight to the High Court. OIn running this case, Vickie has stood up not just for the human rights of prisoners and Aboriginal Australians, but the interests of the entire community. She has done so with courage, integrity and commitment.¹
The Human Rights Law Resource Centre was provided with outstanding legal assistance throughout the case by leading Australian law firm Allens Arthur Robinson, Ron Merkel QC, Michael Pearce SC, and Fiona Forsyth and Kristen Walker of Counsel. OThe legal team brought significant commitment, expertise, resources and dedication to this matter. They acted to protect human rights and uphold the rule of law and, in so doing, acted in the highest traditions of the profession and the interests of the community as a whole.¹
Director and Principal Solicitor
Human Rights Law Resource Centre Ltd
Level 1, 550 Lonsdale Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
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