State to pay visually impaired man’s costs in case over voting

Robbie Sinnott sued Minister after failure to provide way of allowing him cast ballot secretly

The State has been ordered to pay the legal costs of a severely visually impaired man after he won a High Court declaration concerning his right to vote privately and without assistance in referendums and elections.

Robbie Sinnott, supported by the Free Legal Advice Centres, took his proceedings against the Minister for the Environment and the State.

Mr Sinnott, of James Street, Dublin, is a member of the Blind Legal Alliance and, having been born with severe visual impairment, expects to be unable to see at all within four years.

He told the court he must ask the polling station presiding officer to complete his ballot paper which effectively means he is being deprived of his right to vote in secret.

In his judgment in favour of Mr Sinnott last month, Mr Justice Tony O’Connor said the court could not ignore delays by the Department of the Environment up to last year – after Mr Sinnott took his case – in introducing regulations allowing for use of templates to assist visually impaired persons when voting in referendums.

The fact the Minister acted last year on his 20-year-old power to introduce regulations allowing for use of templates in referendums underscored acceptance that tactile voting devices “could have been made available for multiple referenda since 2009”.

The judge also 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 the devices available in Northern Ireland.

Two declarations

He considered Mr Sinnott was entitled to two declarations. The first was that the Minister has a duty to outline publicly details of planned studies and regulations for the provision of arrangements to facilitate voters with visual impairments to mark their ballot papers without assistance as envisaged by Section 94(5)(i) of the 1992 Electoral Act.

The second was that the Minister has 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”.

He adjourned the matter to Friday to make final orders and address liability for costs.

Michael McDowell SC, for Mr Sinnott, said the State had informed his side they objected to the first declaration being made but not to the second.

He said that because the State was “technically correct”, his side had not sought the first declaration and felt its position was vindicated by the judgment.

Having heard the sides, the judge made the second declaration only.

He also rejected arguments by Frank Callanan SC, for the State, that Mr Sinnott should not get all of his costs covered.