The Irish High Court has found in favour of a visually impaired man who took a case against the Minister for Environment, Community and Local Government concerning the Minister’s failure to vindicate his constitutional right to vote in secret. At present, visually impaired persons may only vote with the assistance of a ‘trusted friend’ or presiding officer at the polling station. Robbie Sinnott, of the Blind Legal Alliance, was supported in his case by PILA, which facilitated legal representation by Eversheds Sutherland Solicitors, Michael McDowell SC, Michael Lynn SC and Ciaran Doherty BL.
The case, which ran for a total of 9 days in the High Court, had already yielded a positive result in November 2016, when the State introduced regulations to provide for template voting in referenda for persons with a visual impairment. However Mr Sinnott had argued for wider changes to encompass voting by secret ballot for visually impaired people in local, general and European elections as well as in referenda.
Mr Sinnott, who was born with 3% eye sight, began engaging with the Franchise Section of the Department of Environment regarding the absence of a mechanism for independent voting following the 2011 General Election – the first in which the plaintiff’s vision had deteriorated to the extent that he was unable to vote without assistance. On this occasion, Mr Sinnott’s preferences were read aloud by the polling clerk. Mr Sinnott initiated proceedings against the Minister in 2014 seeking the introduction of measures allowing him to vote in secret, a right which enjoys constitutional protection.
In the High Court, mechanisms for independent voting were considered and expert evidence was given concerning the successful use of template voting in Northern Ireland and in Britain. The evidence was that such implementation was cost effective and feasible, with the example of providing templates for referendums estimated at about €42,000 – “quite insignificant compared to the multi-million euro budget for a referendum”.
Judge Tony O’Connor stated that the Oireachtas had recognised over 20 years ago, by the Electoral Act 1992, that the Minister should be empowered to make appropriate arrangements to allow for a secret ballot for visually impaired voters. Judge O’Connor expressed concerns about delay and lack of transparency during this period, “The delay in introducing the 2016 Regulations and the history of competing priorities within the Franchise Section which were relied upon by the defendant in these proceedings to excuse the lack of information available to the Plaintiff about studies or analyses to be undertaken (as mentioned for example in the disability sectoral plans of the defendant Minister’s department) cannot be ignored by this Court.”
He accepted that the Court cannot require the Minister for the Environment to adopt any particular arrangement, such as a tactile voting device, for such voting. However, it could make a declaration to guide the Minister about the relevant provisions of the Electoral Act 1992 in conjunction with the duty under the Constitution to assure a secret ballot as far as is reasonably practicable. Judge O’Connor proposed declaring that the Minister had a duty to provide such arrangements where there are no disclosed reasonably practicable economic or effective reasons not to vindicate the right to mark ballot papers without assistance.
In a significant development for the rights of people with disabilities, Judge O’Connor was also prepared to declare that the Minister has a duty to outline, in public, details of planned studies and regulations for the provision of arrangements to facilitate visually impaired voters to mark their ballot papers without assistance as envisaged by the 1992 Act.
Judge O’Connor invited further submissions if the parties were unclear about the import of the declarations, and this will be further considered on 28 April 2017.
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