The case was brought by 10 prisoners who were automatically banned from voting in elections to the European Parliament in 2009 because of their incarceration. The European rights court has condemned Britain several times since 2005 for its legislation on prisoners voting. It has said individual countries should be able to decide which inmates should be denied the right to vote, but that a total ban is illegal.
David Cameron, the prime minister, has said the idea of giving prisoners the vote makes him feel "physically sick". In their ruling on Tuesday, the European judges said they recognised that the government had published a draft bill to address the court's concerns. A parliamentary committee examined the bill and in December recommended that prisoners serving sentences of 12 months or less should be eligible to vote.
However, the judges noted that "given that the impugned legislation remains unamended, the court cannot but conclude that... there has been a violation" of the human rights law. The 10 claimants had made a claim for compensation and costs for bringing the case, but the judges rejected this. A spokesman for Britain's justice ministry said: "The government has always been clear that it believes prisoner voting is an issue that should ultimately be decided in the UK."
He said, however, that the government was considering the recommendations from the parliamentary committee. "This is not a straightforward issue and the government needs to think carefully about the recommendations, which included new options for implementation."