Prisoners may be refused legal aid to sue the government if parliament decides to defy the European Court of Human Rights over voting rights, the justice secretary said today.

In a debate following a statement announcing a draft bill on the issue, Chris Grayling said that ministers will ‘before long’ make an announcement on restricting the use of legal aid.

In a statement to meet the six-month deadline set by the Strasbourg court in May, Grayling said that MPs will have three options on voting rights for prisoners. A draft puts forward these options:

  • a ban for prisoners sentenced to four years or more
  • a ban for prisoners sentenced to more than six months
  • a ban for all convicted prisoners – a restatement of the existing ban
All three options will be put forward to a committee of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords for full parliamentary scrutiny.

The government will then produce a bill for debate ‘as soon as possible thereafter’.

The European Court of Human Rights has found that the UK’s ‘general, automatic and indiscriminate’ ban on prisoners voting to be in violation of article three of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to free and fair elections.

Grayling told parliament that: ‘As lord chancellor, as well as secretary of state for justice, I take the obligation on me to uphold the rule of law seriously.’

However, he said ‘it remains the case that parliament is sovereign’, and the 2000 Human Rights Act ‘explicitly recognises that fact’.

‘The current law passed by parliament remains in force unless and until parliament decides to change it.’

When asked what contingency plans he had against 'ambulance-chasing compensation claims', Grayling said: 'I have asked the question about the use of legal aid for purposes I don’t believe our legal aid system is designed to be there for, and I hope to be bringing forward further thoughts in that area before very long.'

Agreeing with Labour’s former justice secretary Jack Straw, that the Strasbourg court had moved in to territory far beyond the aims of its creators, Grayling nonetheless said there was a ‘compelling case for reform’. He said that the UK stands near the top of the list of European countries in implementing Strasbourg court decisions.