Supreme Court rules: Prisoners can vote

The Supreme Court, in a landmark decision Tuesday, gave the nod to more than 13,586, remand and convicted prisoners in the country to exercise their franchise.

To cement its decision, the court directed the Electoral Commission (EC) to come out with a Constitutional Instrument (CI) to create the legal framework that will facilitate the inclusion of prisoners in the voters register for the next general election.

The court, presided over by the Chief Justice, Mrs Justice Georgina Theodora Wood, in a unanimous decision, upheld an application filed on behalf of remand and convicted prisoners by two legal practitioners, Messrs Ahumah Ocansey and Kojo Graham of the Centre for Human Rights and Civil Liberties (CHURCIL).

The two had, in separate suits which were consolidated by the court on November 12, 2009, prayed the court to declare as null and void sections of PNDC Law 284 which barred remand and convicted prisoners from voting.

Joined in the suit were the Attorney-General and the EC.

The A-G’s Department had opposed the suit on the grounds that the reliefs being sought by the two lawyers were against the public interest, while the EC had prayed the court to exclude it from the suit. The court, however, disagreed.

In a three-and-a-half-hour ruling, the court, which had Dr Justice S. K. Date-Bah, Ms Justice Rose Owusu, Mr Justice Jones Dotse and Mr Justice Annin Yeboah as its members, ruled that, The 1992 Constitution, per Article 42, grants all citizens of Ghana who are 18 years and above and are of sound mind the right to be registered to enable them to vote in all public elections and referenda.

“This right extends or includes all convicted prisoners, irrespective of the provisions of Section 7 (5) of the Representation of the People’s Law, 1992, (PNDC Law 284) which imposes a residency requirement or qualification under which convicted prisoners were deemed disqualified.”

It, therefore, declared as void Section 7 (5) of Law 284, since it was inconsistent with Article 42 of the 1992 Constitution.

It further stated that to avoid chaos and hasty decisions, it was imperative for the EC to come up with rules and regulations to regulate the registration exercise.

“This is to ensure that such an exercise is efficiently and effectively managed, controlled and directed to operationalise the registration of prisoners to enable them to vote in future elections and referenda such as will ensure harmonious interface with the Prisons Service Act 1972 NRCD 46 and all the other relevant stakeholders,” the court held.

In reply to the A-G’s opposition, it contended that it found it extremely difficult to understand what constitutionally legitimate interest was served by the non-recognition of the prisons as places of residence for the purpose of voter registration, even for those who had been convicted of high crimes such as subversion and high treason.

“Even for those who attempt to derail the democratic process, voting remains an important means of teaching them democratic values,” the court pointed out.

It commended the two legal practitioners “for taking up this important constitutional case on behalf of prisoners and for the industry they put into this work, which was done pro bono”.

According to the court, it could not overlook the crucial role played by the two lawyers who advanced the frontiers of human rights law in Ghana’s justice system free of charge to prisoners.