According to the 2011 Census, there are almost 53,000 people in the Republic of Ireland with a severe visual impairment – with approximately 52,000 being above the age of 18. This figure is set to rise significantly as average life-expectancy increases. Despite recent advances in technology that have revolutionised how people with visual impairment interact with the world, many inequalities persist.
In 2011, Robbie Sinnott – who suffers from severe visual impairment – founded the Blind Legal Alliance, with its first action to campaign for the right to secret ballot in elections and referenda. Currently if a person with a visual impairment wishes to vote, they must do so through a ‘trusted friend’ or the presiding officer.
After pursuing complaints to a number of public bodies, Robbie came to PILA looking to challenge the State’s failure to put in place mechanisms to enable him to vote in secret.
PILA sought a legal opinion from Michael Lynn SC on the legal basis for challenging the current method of voting. The opinion found that Ireland is currently in breach of its obligations to the EU under the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, and the time was opportune to challenge current procedures in advance of the European elections in May 2014. PILA then approached Eversheds Solicitors to come on board on a pro bono basis.
Robbie took his case to the High Court in a bid to assert the constitutional right of all visually impaired people to participate fully in democratic decision making processes. The case initially 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.
After nine days in the High Court, the case succeeded in March 2017 in securing a declaration that the State had a duty to put a mechanism in place to facilitate visually impaired persons to vote in secret. The case provided clarity to public bodies on their obligations to enact regulations and to engage with interested members of the public. It also established that there is an onus on public bodies to identitfy the rationale where a particular ‘duty’ cannot be vindicated for economic or practical reasons.
Robbie’s legal team at Eversheds Sutherland won the ‘Excellence in the Marketplace’ at the Chambers Ireland Corporate Social Responsibility Awards 2017 for their work on the case.