30 March 2017
In an important victory for people with disabilities, the High Court has today found in favour of a man with a visual impairment seeking to vindicate his right to a secret ballot.
Robbie Sinnott had taken a case against the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government in 2014 asking the State to introduce measures that would enable him as a blind person to vote in secret. Despite the constitutional protection afforded to the right to a secret ballot, currently if a person with a visual impairment wishes to vote, they must do so through a ‘trusted friend’ or presiding officer.
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 Justice Tony O’Connor expressed concerns about delay and lack of transparency.
“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 said in court today.
He said 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 can 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. The judge 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, Mr Justice O’Connor was also prepared to declare 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.
The formal wording of the declarations will be made later after lawyers have considered the judgment. Costs issues will also be decided later.
As founding member of the Blind Legal Alliance, Mr Sinnott was supported in his case by the Public Interest Law Alliance (PILA), a project of FLAC. PILA works to empower social justice groups to access rights and use the law as a tool in addressing disadvantage and exclusion experienced by sections of Irish society. It facilitated legal representation for Mr Sinnott by Eversheds Sutherland Solicitors, Michael McDowell SC, Michael Lynn SC and Ciaran Doherty BL.
Robbie Sinnott said the legal win was about the fundamental right to vote for a group that faces much discrimination. “Visually impaired people make up 5% of the Irish population, which constitutes a large minority of people in this country. That makes today’s victory very important, given that we must frequently overcome serious barriers to access even our basic rights,” he explained.
Welcoming the verdict, FLAC Chief Executive Eilis Barry said “The right to vote in secret is a well-enshrined fundamental norm. The exclusion of people with disabilities from this democratic right is symptomatic of their exclusion from other core parts of life.”
She highlighted that “Today, 30 March, marks 10 years since Ireland signed the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities in 2007, but it has not yet been ratified. It is regrettable and telling that a person with a disability had to resort to litigation to vindicate the most fundamental of democratic rights.”
Ms Barry said the proposed declaration that the Minister has a duty to outline publicly details of planned studies and regulations for the provision of arrangements to facilitate voters with a visual impairment to mark their ballot papers without assistance, is a new and welcome development for the rights of people with disabilities which should help ensure that the arrangements are as effective as possible.
Mr Sinnott thanked his legal team and PILA for their support throughout his 3-year legal battle, saying he had taken the case as a last resort following years of campaigning. “Advocacy is key for activist organisations, but sometimes, despite all the barriers, litigation is the only way to give focus to an issue. What sets PILA apart is that it empowers groups to access their rights by using the law, and I had great support from the team.”
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