The High Court has rejected a legal challenge to legislation excluding British citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years from voting in the EU Referendum.
The British expat Claimants, who had lived in other EU member states for over 15 years, claimed that the EU Referendum Act 2015 breached their rights to free movement under EU law.
The High Court held that:
- section 2 of the Act, which adopts the 15-year rule, was capable of engaging EU law;
- the 15 year rule was not a restriction on the Claimants’ rights of free movement as EU citizens: it was “totally unrealistic to suggest that this rule could have the effect of deterring or discouraging anyone considering whether to settle or remain in another Member State”; and
- even if the 15 year rule were a restriction on those rights, it would be objectively justified because Parliament could “legitimately take the view that electors who satisfy the test of closeness of connection set by the 15 year rule form an appropriate group to vote” on the question posed in the EU referendum. In addition, there would be “significant practical difficulties” in adopting a new electoral register because, by way of example, current practice is for electoral registers to be retained for 15 years, meaning that there would be no straightforward means of checking the previous residency status of British citizens currently subject to the 15-year rule.
The High Court granted the Claimants permission to appeal to the Court of Appeal. The Claimants are expected to pursue an expedited hearing, which could result in the appeal being heard in the next two to three weeks. In principle, the threat to the EU referendum date therefore remains.