Urgent Tribunal hearing on prisoner voting granted

The Waitangi Tribunal has announced an urgent hearing on Māori prisoners having the right to vote.  Current legislation disqualifies sentenced prisoners from participating in general elections.

The claim has been filed by prisoners and includes two applications for an urgent inquiry into the electoral act.

Auckland lawyer Richard Francois, who is representing claimants, says the urgent hearing is good news for sentenced prisoners.

"It seems clear that we will get a hearing mid-2019, which will mean there will be a decision that will also give the government time to act on any recommendations that the Tribunal makes as a result of the hearing and that will be before the 2020 elections."

According to the applicants the Electoral Act breaches the Treaty by failing to protect the right of Māori to vote.

In November, the Supreme Court of New Zealand upheld that it was inconsistent with the 1990 New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

Francois says, "That was the first declaration of its kind in New Zealand and instead what Andrew Little said in response to that ruling was that amending the law was not a matter of priority for this government and that is where it really has stalled."

Prisoners serving fewer than three years in prison were entitled to vote until 2010 when the National government changed the law to exclude inmates from the ballot box.

"This government by doing nothing is perpetuating that human rights violation.  In fact, if it doesn't do anything at all and just goes with the status quo then they are a human rights violator even though they voted against it," says Francois.

This is the third such application for an urgent inquiry after the first two were declined in 2014 and 2016 respectively. This is the first urgency application for Wai 2842.

"It's very difficult to say exactly why we were succesful this time but I believe one of the decisive factors was that the attorney general had a complete turn-around in his position.”

In a statement to Te Kāea, Justice Minister Andrew Little says, “The first thing we are going to do is change the law so there's an obligation on parliament to respond to decisions like the one on prisoner voting.  Once that is done and as priorities allow the government will consider the particular decision of the Supreme Court in this case.”

Francois says claimants will go as far as the UN if the legislation fails.