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UK entitled to bar long term ex-pats from voting, ECtHR rules

7 May 2013

A rule of UK law that denies voting rights to British citizens who have not lived in the country for more than 15 years is not a breach of their human rights, the European Court of Humsn Rights ruled today.

A chamber of seven judges unanimously ruled that there had been no violation of article 3 of Protocol 1 to the Convention (right to free elections) in the case of Harry Shindler, who had lived in Italy since he retired in 1982 and was barred from voting in the 2010 general election.

Mr Shindler, a retired serviceman who received a UK state pension and paid tax on a British bank account, and who still had family in the UK, argued that he retained strong ties with the country and to disenfranchise him was not a proportionate limitation of his right.

The court accepted that the rule pursued the legitimate aim of confining the parliamentary franchise to those citizens with a close connection to the United Kingdom and who would therefore be most directly affected by its laws. if Mr Shindler returned to live in the UK, his right to vote as a resident would be restored. In those circumstances it could not be said that the restriction impaired the very essence of Mr Shindler’s rights under article 3 of Protocol 1.

It noted that Parliament had considered and amended the rules on a number of occasions, and found that allowing non-residents to vote for 15 years after leaving the country was not an unsubstantial period of time. Having regard to the significant burden which would be imposed if the UK were required to ascertain in every application to vote by a non-resident whether the individual had a sufficiently close connection to the country, the court was satisfied that the general rule in this case promoted legal certainty and avoided problems of arbitrariness and inconsistency inherent in weighing interests on a case-by-case basis.

The court concluded, having regard to the margin of appreciation available to the UK in regulating its parliamentary elections, that the restriction imposed on Mr Shindler’s right to vote was proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued, and that there had been no violation of article 3 of protocol 1 in his case.

Parties have three months to consider whether to request that the case be referred to the Grand Chamber, failing which the judgment will become final.

Click here to access the judgment.

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