The Court of Appeal has reserved judgment in an appeal over a High Court ruling last year that voter ID schemes in 10 local authorities were lawful.
Neil Coughlan’s appeal was heard by three senior judges yesterday (23 April) by video link.
In March 2019 Mr Justice Supperstone ruled that the grounds of challenge advanced by the claimant were arguable but concluded that none were made out.
The High Court judge ruled that the power under s.10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000 permitting experimental changes to “…how voting at the election is to take place” was wide enough to encompass adding a requirement that individuals produce ID before being able to vote.
In a statement ahead of this week’s hearing, law firm Leigh Day said Mr Coughlan would argue that the pilots trialling voter ID in the local elections last year were unlawful as the minister went beyond the powers conferred on him by Parliament.
It added that the appeal was focused on the understanding of the word ‘how’. Mr Coughlan was set to argue that ‘how’ voting takes place, according to the dictionary definition, means the physical process, manner or means by which electors communicate their vote and does not mean changing an elector’s entitlement to vote by making them prove their identity.
Mr Coughlan also argues that a scheme which introduces additional voter eligibility restrictions as a means to counter electoral fraud does not fall within the powers of Ministerial Orders and could only be introduced by an Act of Parliament with all the parliamentary scrutiny that entails.
His case is that the pilot schemes run in last year’s May elections were not about “when, where and how voting at the elections is to take place” but about whether a person got to vote at all. He was to argue that a demand for ID such as a passport, driving licence or utility bill at the polling station "frustrates the facilitation and encouragement to vote".
Mr Coughlan said: “As the Government moves to bring forward legislation to introduce voter ID requirements nationally at general elections it is all the more important to establish whether these pilots were lawful.”
He added: “Requiring individuals to produce identity documents is going to deprive legitimate members of the electorate of the vote and I believe it will disproportionately affect the poor and marginalised members of our society.”
Leigh Day solicitor Tessa Gregory said: “Mr Coughlan contends that by giving Ministers the power to make changes as to how voting takes place, Parliament cannot have intended them to disenfranchise those voters who cannot produce the correct form of ID at the polling station.
“In his legal case he argues that restricting people’s right to vote in local elections by requiring them to produce ID is an important constitutional matter that has to be expressly authorised by Parliament.”