A 44-year-old woman from Norwich who is registered blind has accepted compensation to settle a legal challenge against her local authority, Broadland District Council, after it failed to make the necessary arrangements to allow her to vote independently and in secret in the 2015 General Election.
Rachael Andrews, from Norwich, has myopic macular degeneration and is registered blind. She attended her local polling station on 7 May 2015 with her husband, who is also blind, and her mother-in-law, who is fully sighted, to vote in the 2015 general and local elections.
The Representation of the People Act 1983 states that polling stations must be equipped with a device that enables blind and partially sighted people to vote without assistance. The current device used to meet these requirements is the Tactile Voting Device (‘TVD’).
The TVD is a plastic template with sticky backing which attaches on top of a ballot paper. It has numbered, lift up flaps (the numbers are raised) directly over the boxes where the elector is supposed to be able to mark their vote.
Ms Andrews asked for the TVD at her polling station but the presiding officer said he had never heard of one. She pressed him on this and he went to look for one, but returned to say again that they didn’t have one.
Ms Andrews' mother-in-law therefore had to read out the candidate names to her and then had to mark her votes on her ballot papers on her behalf. Ms Andrews was required to tell her mother-in-law aloud who she wished to vote for, compromising her statutory duty and right to vote in secret, and compromising her right to vote independently.
Ms Andrews complained to her local authority after the incident but, after chasing on several occasions, did not receive a satisfactory response.
Law firm Leigh Day, who represented Ms Andrews, successfully settled the case for £2000 alongside securing an apology, recognition of the discrimination she suffered and several assurances from her local authority, Broadland District Council about improvements it will make in the future to ensure that blind and partially sighted people do not have the same experience in the future.
Lawyers representing Ms Andrews in her claim, which was supported by the RNIB, successfully argued that the failure to provide a TVD was in breach of the Equality Act 2010 which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of disability and provides that public bodies must take reasonable steps to ensure that disabled people are afforded the same levels of service as people who are not disabled.
Ms Andrews’ human rights were also breached as the European Convention on Human Rights states that everyone has the right to vote by secret ballot and that this right must be enjoyed without discrimination.
Kate Egerton from the human rights team at Leigh Day said: “My client, as a person with a disability, feels very strongly about government benefits and social care reforms, and sees it is her duty to be proactive in trying to change things for the better for other people with disabilities.
“She is therefore passionate about her right to vote, and believes that blind and visually impaired people should be afforded the same right to vote confidently, independently and in secret that fully sighted people have.
“However, there was nothing independent or secret about her experience of voting in the 2015 elections, which she found humiliating and distressing.
“Our client said she was made to feel like a child having to press the presiding officer to provide her with a TVD, have the candidates read aloud to her, state who she intended to vote for in front of everyone in the polling station, and then have her mother-in-law cast her vote for her, which was degrading and disempowering."
Rachael Andrews said: “I felt that the polling station staff didn’t care that I would not be able to cast my vote independently – I felt like I didn’t exist and that my vote counted less than everyone else’s.
“The fact that I had to chase for a response and resort to legal action to seek redress added to my feelings that my complaint and my inability to vote in private was not taken seriously by my local authority.”
A RNIB survey asked blind and partially sighted voters about their experiences in last May’s local, regional and Mayoral elections and the European referendum in June. The RNIB found that the lack of provision of a TVD was sadly very common.
Hugh Huddy, RNIB Policy Manager, said: “RNIB campaigns for voting to be accessible for all blind and partially sighted people. Whenever blind and partially sighted voters find it difficult or impossible to cast their vote independently and in secret, we support individuals to challenge inaccessibility problems. This may sometimes require legal action. However, we hope electoral services will implement the accessibility provision in the existing law so legal action is not needed.”
Ms Egerton concluded: “In Rachael’s case, the local authority should be commended for accepting its error and taking some steps to try and improve the situation for the future.
“Sadly, Rachael’s experience appears to be far from unique. We have been contacted by other voters who have suffered similar problems as a result of the failure of their local authorities to take the necessary steps to allow them to vote independently and in secret. If anybody experiences a problem on 8th June 2017, we would urge them to seek legal advice in relation to whether they have suffered unlawful discrimination and a breach of their human rights.
“Fundamentally, we also need Government to urgently review the whole voting system to make it far more accessible to blind and visually impaired voters. This includes providing information in an accessible format, making postal voting far easier and replacing TVDs with a far more modern and user-friendly system.”