State ordered to pay legal costs of visually impaired man who won right to vote without help

The State has been ordered to pay the legal costs of a severely visually impaired man after he won a High Court declaration concerning the State's duty to vindicate 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, Community, and Local Government and the State.

A father-of-two with an address in James Street, Dublin, Mr Sinnott is a member of the Blind Legal Alliance who was born with severe visual impairment and 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 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.

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 over years until 2016 - after Mr Sinnott took his case - in introducing regulations allowing for use of templates to assist visually impaired persons (VIPs) when voting in referendums.

The fact the Minister acted in 2016 on his 20 year old power to introduce regulations allowing for use of templates in referendums underscored acceptance that tactile voting devices (TVDs) “could have been made available for multiple referenda since 2009”.

He also empathised with Mr Sinnott’s complaint about lack of information emanating from the Department relating to the actual steps taken, or to be taken, to emulate the use of TVDs available in Northern Ireland.

He considered Mr Sinnott was entitled to two declarations.

The first was 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 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 yesterday (fri) 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.

Because the State was "technically correct" his side had not sought the first declaration and his side felt its position was vindicated by the judgment and were anxious the High Court findings should be "unimpeachable", he was not asking for the first declaration.

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 and awarded full costs to Mr Sinnott against the defendants.


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