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British expats lose legal battle for right to vote in EU referendum


Court challenge brought by 94-year-old second world war veteran living in Italy and lawyer resident in Belgium fails

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British lawyer Jacquelyn MacLennan, who lives in Belgium, outside the high court in central London. Photograph: Niklas Halle’N/AFP/Getty Images

The high court has rejected an attempt to force the government to grant millions of UK citizens living abroad a vote in this June’ s EU referendum.

The legal challenge brought by two disenfranchised expats on behalf of those living overseas for more than 15 years was dismissed by Lord Justice Lloyd Jones and Mr Justice Blake.

The government, the judges said, was entitled to adopt a cut-off period “at which extended residence abroad might indicate a weakening of ties with the United Kingdom”.

The ruling also noted that there would be “significant practical difficulties about adopting, especially for this referendum, a new electoral register which includes non-resident British citizens whose last residence in the UK was more than 15 years ago”.

The judges added: “Electoral registration officers currently retain records of previous electoral registers for a period of 15 years. They have no straightforward means of checking the previous residence status of British citizens who have been resident overseas for longer than 15 years.

“In our view, parliament could legitimately take the view that electors who satisfy the test of closeness of connection set by the 15 rule form an appropriate group to vote on the question whether the UK should remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union.”

The case was brought by 94-year-old Harry Shindler, a second world war veteran who lives in Italy, and the lawyer Jacquelyn MacLennan who lives in Belgium.

In court, lawyers for the two had argued that under the EU Referendum Act 2015 they were being unlawfully denied the right to vote in the referendum.

But Lloyd Jones, sitting with Blake, ruled section two did not restrict their rights and rejected their application for judicial review.

Richard Stein, the solicitor from Leigh Day who represented the claimants, said they would appeal.

“We now intend to 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,” Stein said.

“We believe that there is precedent for fast-track legislation being put through parliament in a matter of days in response to court judgment, so there would be no need for the referendum to be delayed if the supreme court rules in our favour.

“Since this is a vote in a referendum rather than in an election there is no need to link the votes of Britons in Europe to any particular constituency in the UK. Possession of a British passport should be enough.”

Responding to the judgment, MacLennan said: “The government made a manifesto commitment to enfranchise all British citizens, no matter how long they have been abroad saying that they thought that ‘choosing 15 years, as opposed to 14 or 16 years, is inherently like sticking a dart in a dartboard’ and that ‘if British citizens maintain British citizenship that brings with it rights, obligations and a connection with this country, and that that should endure’. We just want the government to keep its promises.”

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