Judge gives government more time to devise prisoner voting system

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 March, 2009, 12:00am

The High Court judge who struck down a ban on prisoner voting gave the government a temporary reprieve yesterday, ruling that the landmark overhaul to voting rules could be delayed until October 31.

But Mr Justice Andrew Cheung Kui-nung warned that the delay could draw lawsuits from angry prisoners who were unable to vote if a by-election was held in the meantime. And the result of any election could be challenged if prisoners were barred from casting their ballots.

Mr Justice Cheung's ruling came in response to a government petition last month for more time to usher in a new inmate voting system.

'Such an order will not immune the government from legal liability,' the Court of First Instance judge wrote in his 36-page judgment. 'The government will continue to enforce the voting restriction provisions in any forthcoming by-election at its own legal risk.'

Mr Justice Cheung ruled in December that the blanket prohibition of prisoner voting was unconstitutional. The government said it needed more time to amend voting laws and set up a ballot system.

Several ideas for the new voting system have been floated for public consultation, including a continued ballot-casting ban on inmates serving sentences of 10 years or longer.

League of Social Democrats legislator 'Long Hair' Leung Kwok-hung had argued that any delay could damage public confidence in the electoral process.

Mr Leung and two convicted robbers had challenged the voting ban as unconstitutional.

The Society for Community Organisation, which has been helping the prisoners, said it regretted the court's decision and urged the government to make all arrangements to enable prisoners to vote should any election take place before October.

In a letter to lawmakers yesterday, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Stephen Lam Sui-lung said the government was about to gauge public views on the issue by conducting an opinion poll.

The six questions to be asked include whether respondents agree to give prisoners the right to vote regardless of the length of their jail terms, or whether a line should be drawn for those serving terms of three, five or 10 years.