Challenge to Election Law brought to High Court by Máiría Cahill and Human Rights Commission
Belfast High Court will hear the case brought by Máiría Cahill and the Human Rights Commission, challenging election law in Northern Ireland on Monday (3 February).
The Commission is supporting Máiría Cahill’s case to challenge the law which requires an individual’s address to be published when they stand as a candidate in local council or European elections. The legal challenge was lodged against the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Chief Electoral Officer.
The initial hearing took place in November, when the Court heard that the Secretary of State had sought to amend the current law but had been prevented from doing so at that point by the dissolution of Parliament. The case has wide reaching implications for future electoral candidates and elections.
Chief Commissioner Les Allamby stated:
“The Commission is pleased to support Máiría’s case as we believe her human rights have been breached and that the current law is incompatible with the Human Rights Act. We strongly believe election candidates in Northern Ireland must be extended the same protections as elsewhere in the United Kingdom. In the Commission’s view, being able to put yourself forward for election locally is a fundamental part of our democracy. The requirement for an individual’s name and address to be published disproportionately affects the right to privacy and may impact on an individual’s ability to stand in a local election.
“We want a clear and short timeframe for a change in the law to allow a candidates home address not to be published where there are reasonable circumstances for withholding it such as fear of domestic violence.”
Máiría Cahill commented:
“I would like to thank the Commission for their support in this case, which I think is an important case to take, not just on my behalf, but on the potential precedent it can set for anyone in or considering running for local public office who currently has fears for their safety. People should not be forced into a position where they have to give up running for public office because a discriminatory and outdated law could put them at risk. A law change in this area would benefit all representatives in Northern Ireland but particularly, people who are victims of domestic violence and abuse, or those with concerns for their safety.”
The Commission and Máiriá Cahill are challenging the Secretary of State as the Northern Ireland Office has responsibility for the relevant legislation. The Chief Electoral Officer is responsible for enforcing the requirement to publish the addresses of election candidates.
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Notes to Editors
1. The NI Human Rights Commission is a statutory public body established in 1999 to promote and protect human rights. In accordance with the Paris Principles the Commission reviews the adequacy and effectiveness of measures undertaken by the UK Government to promote and protect human rights, specifically within Northern Ireland.
Facts of the case:
2. Máiría Cahill was co-opted onto Lisburn Castlereagh City Council in July 2018, as an SDLP representative. This process did not require that her home address was made public.
3. Máiría intended to stand for re-election to this Council seat in the local council elections of May 2019. During the process of filling in her nomination papers, Máiría noted the requirement that a candidate for local elections in Northern Ireland must have their home address published.
4. Máiría queried this requirement with the Electoral Office and was advised that she would have to provide her home address for publication, or her nomination papers would be considered invalid.
5. Máiría currently has an indefinite restraining order against an individual. This restraining order is in place by order of the court, for her protection. Publishing her address would put her at risk at that address, however the law required her to do so or forfeit her ability to stand for re-election. It is unacceptable to expect people to jeopardise their safety to run for public office in situations like these.
6. As a direct result of the legislation in place and the Electoral Office’s decision, Máiría was unable to submit her nomination papers and to seek re-election.
7. Following this, Máiría became aware of the possibility to stand in the European Parliament elections in May 2019. She made similar enquiries regarding the requirements for standing and was advised that she would again have to provide her home address for publication or be unable to seek election as an MEP. Again, the requirement to provide her address meant Máiría was unable to stand in the European Parliament elections.
What the law in N.I. is:
In Northern Ireland, candidates for the Westminster Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly elections do not have to publish their address in order to stand.
Under Schedule 5 to the Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 and Schedule 1 to the European Parliamentary Elections (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2004 this requirement remains in place for candidates standing for local council in Northern Ireland or taking part in European elections. The requirement has been changed for local council candidates and Westminster Parliament candidates in England and Wales.
Before the court, Máiría and the Commission will argue that the requirement that she publish her address is in violation of her rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (CFR).
In particular, the requirement breaches her right to private and family life (Article 8 ECHR), her freedom to manifest her beliefs (Article 9 ECHR), her right to free elections regarding the European Parliament (Protocol 1, Article 3 ECHR) and is discriminatory towards Máiría on the grounds of sex (Article 14 ECHR).
The requirement further breaches Máiría’s CFR right to stand as a candidate at elections to the European Parliament (Article 39 CFR) and to stand as a candidate at municipal elections (Article 40 CFR).
What happens after Monday’s court hearing:
Máiría’s case is currently at the ‘leave’ stage of judicial review proceedings where she will be seeking to demonstrate that she has an arguable case, which can then proceed to a full hearing. If the Judge agrees, then leave will be granted and the case will proceed to a full hearing in the coming months.
03 Feb 2020