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Blind woman granted permission for legal challenge to government's provisions for blind voters

The High Court have granted permission for a legal challenge brought by Rachael Andrews, who is blind, in relation to the Government's failure to make arrangements to allow her to vote independently and secretly at the polling station to proceed to a full hearing. In doing so, the Court confirmed that they considered that Rachael's challenge was “arguable”.

Posted on 09 November 2018

The Representation of the People Act 1983 allows the Government to designate a device to allow blind people to vote “without any need for assistance”. Currently the government has designated a piece of plastic called a Tactile Voting Device or TVD which is supposed to fit over the ballot paper to allow a person to mark an ‘X’ in a particular place. Rachael is challenging the government’s decision to designate a TVD as a suitable device as she does not consider that it actually allows blind people to vote without the need for assistance. 
There have been a number of problems reported with polling stations not having the TVDs or them being the wrong size for the particular ballot paper. Rachael successfully settled a previous legal claim against Broadland District Council in 2017 for failing to have the TVD available for the 2015 General Election.
In this legal case Rachael argues that, even when stocked and of the correct size, a more fundamental problem is that the TVD doesn’t actually allow blind people to vote independently and in secret as they still need help from the Presiding Officer (the official in charge of the polling station) or a member of their close family to read to them the names of the candidates and the order in which they appear on the ballot paper.  This is particularly an issue if there are multiple elections (and therefore ballot papers) on the same day and/or there are a large number of candidates in  a particular election.
Rachael argues that the UK lags behind many other countries which have found systems to allow blind voters to vote more easily including audio voting booths and telephone voting.
Following an initial pre-action letter sent to the government setting out the legal challenge the government’s response was that voting simply means physically marking the ballot paper.  In turn, assistance with voting simply means assistance with marking the ballot with an ‘X’ and nothing more.  This disregards blind voters’ need, as part of the voting process, to know the names of the candidates and the order in which they appear on the ballot paper.
More recently, the Government have also argued that they are already addressing the issue so the legal challenge is unnecessary.  They published a response in August 2018 to a consultation issued in September 2017 on the issue.  However, the response does not identify any particular action the Government intends to take or timescale for taking any action. 
Rachael, said: “I have always voted in general elections. I see it as a very important civic duty and feel very strongly that I should simply be afforded the same right to vote independently and in secret as everyone else.
“Despite all the technological advances now  available that enable people with disabilities to lead an independent life, I find it immensely depressing that, when it comes to voting, one of the most important responsibilities a person has in a democracy, the only aid available to a blind voter is a piece of plastic that doesn’t really work.  Sadly, I believe that many blind voters are currently put off voting because of the difficulties they face.
“I am disappointed that it has been necessary to commence legal proceedings but am keen that the Government stops dragging its feet and takes action to allow me to vote independently and secretly in time for the next General Election.”
Sean Humber, head of Leigh Day’s human rights department, said: “The provisions made for blind voters by the government are quite simply not fit for purpose. The right to vote freely, independently and in secret is fundamental to any democracy, we hope that the courts will hear our client’s challenge and order the government to reconsider the assistance they provide for blind voters.”

David Lock QC of Landmark Chambers is instructed by Rachael in this matter.

Rachael is grateful to the Legal Aid Agency for funding this case.