Shindler v. the United Kingdom

This case concerned the right to vote of a British national, residing in Italy since 1982, who was unable to vote in the United Kingdom general elections. The Court held that the fact that non-residents can vote in national elections only for the first fifteen years following their emigration is not disproportionate and not contrary to Article 3 Protocol No. 1.

The applicant, Mr. Harry Schindler, was a British citizen who decided to move to Italy in 1982 following his retirement. He was unable to vote in the United Kingdom general election of 5 May 2010 because, on the basis of the Representation of the People Act 1985 (as amended), only British citizens residing overseas for less than 15 years are permitted to vote in parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom.

The Representation of the People Act 1985 was the first instrument to provide for United Kingdom citizens living overseas to be able to register to vote in general and European parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom. In 1985, the applicable time-limit was 5 years, but it was further extended to 20 years in 1990 and subsequently reduced to 15 years as from 1 April 2002.

According to the Court, the rights bestowed by Article 3 of Protocol No. 1 – are not absolute. Contracting States have a margin of appreciation but they must not curtail the rights bestowed by that provision to such an extent as to impair their very essence and deprive them of their effectiveness. The State’s margin of appreciation must be imposed in pursuit of a legitimate aim and the means employed must not be disproportionate.

The Court recalled that it already took the view that having to satisfy a residence or length-of residence requirement in order to have or exercise the right to vote in elections is not, in principle, an arbitrary restriction of the right to vote and is therefore not incompatible with Article 3 of Protocol No.1. It provided a list of factors already taken into account to justify residence requirements and specified that even where it may be possible that the applicant has not severed ties with his country of origin and that some of the factors indicated are therefore inapplicable to this case, the law cannot always take account of every individual case but must lay down a general rule.

In the case at stake, the Court noted that neither the applicant nor the Government expressly identified the legitimate aim of the restriction in the present case. However, the Court believes that it pursued the legitimate aim of confining the parliamentary franchise to those citizens with a close connection with the United Kingdom and who would, therefore, be most directly affected by its laws.

As far as the proportionality of the United Kingdom legislation is concerned, it allows non-residents to vote for fifteen years after leaving the country, which is not an unsubstantial period of time. After having studied the Venice Commission Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters 2002, the activities of Council of Europe bodies, and the laws and practice of the member States in this area, the Court found that there was no violation of Article 3 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention in the present case. Boris Johnson has subsequently written to Mr. Schindler and promised to repeal the 15-year rule.

The judgement is available here: http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng?i=001-119229.