Friday 20 April 2018

High Court win highly significant

Challenge to state over secret ballot rights for visually-impaired people

Richard Sinnott, from Sigginstown, Tacumshane.
Richard Sinnott, from Sigginstown, Tacumshane.

David Tucker

A visually-impaired Wexford man who won a landmark High Court court action over his right to a secret ballot says it's the most signficant voting case in the history of the State.

Robert Sinnott, a father of two from Sigginstown, Tacumshane, a member of the Blind Legal Alliance, told the court that the State had failed to provide a method enabling those with sight difficulties to vote by secret ballot and he had to ask polling station presiding officers in order to vote.

The court agreed withi his contention and said the Minister should outline plans to allow people to mark ballots without assistance

'This is the most significant voting case in the history of the state and it's symbolically important for the five per cent of the population who are blind or visually impaired and we're delighted to have such a basic human right within reach at least,' Mr Sinnott told this newspaper.

The National Council for the Blind said the ruling was very important.

'We've had voting in the State since its foundation, so it's in the 20s, and for that whole length of time we've had no access to equal rights for people for sight loss to vote,' said CEO of the NCBI, Chris White.

'We rely on the "trusted friend method" in Ireland, where other European countries have technology which allows people to vote in private and fully participate in the democracy which people value so much."

Mr Sinnott had taken proceedings against the Minister for the Environment and the State. He was supported by the Free Legal Advice Centres.

In his judgment, Mr Justice Tony O'Connor said Mr Sinnott has 'an inspiring desire to learn and to participate'.

He shared Mr Sinnott's concerns about the Department of the Environment's delay over years in introducing the relevant tactile voting systems, and about the lack of information made publicly available about them.

The evidence was that the cost of providing templates for referendums was estimated at about €42,000, 'quite insignificant compared to the multi-million euro budget for a referendum'. The cost would be higher in general elections.

The judge shared Mr Sinnott's concerns that the Minister did not afford sufficient or reasonable recognition of the duty imposed on him by the Oireachtas and the Constitution to assure a secret ballot as soon as reasonably practicable, the Irish Times reports.

He said the court could not ignore delays over years until 2016, after Mr Sinnott had taken his case, in introducing regulations allowing for the use of templates to assist visually impaired persons when voting in referendums.

He said the Minister acted in 2016 on his 20-year-old power to introduce regulations allowing for use of templates in referendums. The introduction of those underscored the acceptance that tactile voting devices 'could have been made available for multiple referenda since 2009'.

The judge empathised with Mr Sinnott's complaint about the lack of information emanating from the Department relating to the actual steps taken, or to be taken, to emulate the use of voting devices available in Northern Ireland.

Mr Sinnott, the judge held, was entitled to a declaration the State has a duty to provide arrangements allowing visually impaired persons to vote privately and without assistance in elections and referendums, where that is reasonably practicable and economically effective.

He said the court could not require the Minister to adopt any particular arrangement but could make a declaration to guide the Minister about the relevant provisions of the Electoral Act 1992.

He was 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.

Mr Sinnott, who was born with severe visual impairment, expects to be unable to see at all within four years.

With assistance of an educational support worker, a specially-developed computer software package and a strong visual magnifier, he is pursuing a PhD in Irish at Trinity College, having previously obtained other degrees.

Mr Sinnott claimed he must ask the polling station presiding officer to complete his ballot paper, which effectively means he is being deprived of his right to a secret ballot.

Mr Justice O'Connor ruled Mr Sinnott was entitled to the two declarations concerning the State's duty, but there was no need to award damages because Mr Sinnott's main grievance had been addressed.

New Ross Standard