A British World War II veteran living in Italy on Thursday (28 April) lost his legal challenge against a rule barring long-term expatriates from voting in Britain’s European Union referendum.
High Court judge David Lloyd Jones rejected claims by Harry Shindler, 94, and his co-claimant, Belgium resident Jacquelyn MacLennan, that the rule restricted their rights to freedom of movement under European law.
The judge told London’s High Court that the 2015 referendum act “is not a restriction on the rights of free movement.”
Lawyers acting for the expats said they will seek leave to appeal the decision.
The ruling is a relief for the government, whose lawyers argued that a decision in favour of the claimants could have made it impossible to hold the membership referendum on June 23, as planned.
Britons who have lived abroad for more than 15 years are prohibited from voting in British general elections and as a result cannot participate.
Irish people and citizens of Commonwealth countries living in Britain, as well as inhabitants of Gibraltar, are allowed to vote.
Lawyers from Leigh Day solicitors argued that Brexit would mean the claimants were no longer EU citizens and therefore no longer afforded the rights of free movement which flow from EU citizenship.
“The 15 year rule is neither an express restriction on free movement nor is it in substance a disguised or inherent restriction on free movement,” Lloyd Jones concluded.
He also rejected claims that the 15-year time limit was arbitrary.
“In attempting to identify a point at which extended residence abroad might indicate weakening of ties with the United Kingdom, a bright line rule is required, drawing the line at a specific point.”
Leigh Day lawyer Richard Stein said they would take the legal battle to the Supreme Court, the highest court in the country, “so that all British citizens living elsewhere in the EU can be part of the democratic process to vote in this referendum, which will have a very real impact on their lives.
“We believe that there is precedent for fast-track legislation being put through parliament in a matter of days in response to court judgement, so there would be no need for the referendum to be delayed if the Supreme Court rules in our favour.”
Shindler, who fought in Italy during World War II and retired to the country in 1982, lost a challenge to the 15-year general election rule at the European Court of Human Rights in 2013.
“It leaves us speechless to think anyone can stand up in parliament and deny another Brit the right to vote,” Shindler said before the judgement.
An estimated 1.2 million Britons live in other parts of the European Union, according to a parliamentary report, and many are concerned about the impact that a so-called Brexit would have on their rights.
Leigh Day claimed that up to two million people could be affected.
A government spokesman said the franchise issue had been “debated, considered and agreed” by parliament.
A petition to allow all British expatriates to vote in the referendum, launched in November, has attracted over 18,000 signatures.
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