Court Challenge Against Voting Law That Disenfranchises Britons Abroad

March 10, 2010

Cleary Gottlieb, working with Brick Court Chambers and acting on behalf of James Preston, applied on March 10 for judicial review of the British law that strips British citizens living overseas for more than 15 years of the right to vote in Parliamentary elections. Mr. Preston’s lawyers argue that the law penalizes British citizens as a result of their exercise of free movement and establishment rights guaranteed by the European Union, in violation of European Law.

The Government says that restricting the right of British citizens to vote in Parliamentary elections is justified, but Mr. Preston disagrees. “I’m a British citizen and only a British citizen, married to a British wife and both of us work for British firms. I read British papers, my children attend a British school and my estate taxes are owed to the British government when I die. This law penalizes me for taking advantage of the opportunities that the British government promised to all citizens when Britain joined the EU. The spirit of this law is entirely inconsistent with British democratic traditions as well as our foreign policy, where we work to bring democracy to far off corners of the world.” Mr. Preston, born in Leicester, now lives and works in Madrid, Spain after posting by his British employer 15 years ago.

Unlike the United States or other major countries in the European Union, such as France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, the United Kingdom strips citizens of the right to vote in Parliamentary elections for the mere fact of having resided abroad for more than 15 years. Though exceptions exist for the military, civil servants and British Council employees, all other citizens, including Church of England missionaries and English teachers at British schools around the corner from the British Council, lose the right to vote after 15 years abroad. In addition to British citizens like Mr. Preston, the only other citizens who do not enjoy the right to vote are children, individuals who suffer from mental illness, and criminals.

Mr. Preston’s counsel, Romano Subiotto QC, noted that, “The British voting law penalizes British citizens who exercise their fundamental rights to move freely between European Union countries. It prevents British citizens from enjoying the same free movement rights guaranteed to the citizens of other EU countries. This law is an anachronism in this day and age of easy, quick, and reliable communications.”

Mr. Preston is represented Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP and Brick Court Chambers, both of whom are acting on a pro bono basis in view of the important constitutional issue raised by this case.