What the EU referendum will mean for prisons, courts and crime

Brexit and British justice

EU flag credit Oona Räisänen

EU and Westminster have different views on prisoner voting


With exactly eight weeks until the referendum on Britain’s EU membership, read our quick round up of what the EU means for the prison and legal systems in the UK.

European Convention on Human Rights

Britain, like all 28 EU member states, is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), a code of conduct enforced by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The Convention was incorporated into UK law by the Human Rights Act (1998), which David Cameron and Michael Gove have suggested replacing with a British bill of rights.

Strasbourg’s human rights convention and courts are separate from the European Union, so leaving the EU would not oblige the UK to extricate itself from the convention.

However, they influence EU decisions, so it is likely the Human Rights Act will come up for discussion again if the UK votes to leave the EU.

Prisoner votes: Catch 22?

If Britain votes to leave, prisoners can wave goodbye to almost any hope of being given the right to vote.

Prisoners will not be allowed to cast their ballot in the EU referendum. As the European Referendum Bill sets out, those entitled to vote are those who at that time “would be entitled to vote as electors at a parliamentary election in any constituency”.

The EU has in the past looked more favourably on giving prisoners convicted of lesser offences the right to vote than Westminster.

But, of course, current prisoners cannot vote to stay in the EU to increase their chances of winning the normal votes rights in the UK.


The European Arrest Warrant allows EU citizens to be sent abroad and charged for even minor crimes in foreign courts. It also makes it easier to transfer prisoners to their home country.

Brexit could change this. For example, EU countries might refuse to extradite their citizens to the UK.


The exit campaign has exaggerated laws being determined by the European Commission, which, they say, sacrifice Britain’s sovereignty.

But Europhiles say the extent of ‘dictates being passed down from Brussels’ has been overplayed, and that it is better to shape EU-wide laws from the inside.

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