Adjournment Debate. - Inclusion of Students on Electoral Register.

I want to thank you, Sir, for allowing me to raise this very important motion on the Adjournment. I want to thank the Minister for coming in here to respond to this matter himself. I appreciate the demands that are on his time but, as far as I am concerned, the issue is one of major importance to many parts of rural Ireland.

This issue arose as a result of the judgment in the High Court on 29 November 1990. Waterford students had taken an action in the Circuit Court and were defeated in an appeal hearing in the Supreme Court which gave a judgment whereby, according to my interpretation of the judgment, students had the option to be registered either at their place of birth or in whatever town or city they were attending college. However, at the appeals court in Athlone last Monday the county registrar for Roscommon, Mr. McCormack, took the view, as a result of the Supreme Court judgment that students should be registered in the town where they were attending college and not at the home of their parents. That judgment has very serious implications for many parts of rural Ireland.

In counties such as Roscommon, which has no third level institution, in counties such as Mayo, Leitrim, Galway, with the exception of Galway city, in Sligo, with the exception of Sligo town, Longford, Westmeath, Offaly, Donegal and Cavan the implication of that judgment is that none of the students between the ages of 18 and 21 can be registered in their home constituencies. I am not here to criticise Mr. McCormack on the decision he has taken, but it is my interpretation of the Supreme Court judgment that students are permitted to be registered, if need be, both at home and at their place of residence in college.

In my view the Supreme Court bent over backwards to point out that it was not an offence to be registered twice — the offence was to vote twice — and it drew the distinction clearly between being registered twice and voting twice. I feel that if this situation is allowed to continue it could deprive many of our young people of the opportunity to use their democratic right to vote. As the Minister knows, many students go to Dublin, Galway or wherever, and for the first year many of them are in digs; during the second year they move out to apartments and most of them could have up to four different addresses between the time they enter third level education until the time they complete it. It is more than likely that the vast majority of them will not bother to register.

In Athlone I made the point to the county registrar that it was my interpretation of the law that a student was entitled to be registered where they were living on 15 September. The county registrar pointed out that at that stage they had made up their minds as to whether they were going to college or not and would probably have paid a deposit on their fees. As far as he was concerned he would not register any students at the revision courts in 1992. His interpretation of the Supreme Court judgment was that they should be registered wherever they were in college.

There are many issues involved here. Are different county registrars going to adopt differing attitudes? If so, surely the situation needs clarification. That is why I have raised this question here today. I cannot understand how a judgment would be given that would deprive those young people of the opportunity of being registered at their place of residence or of birth.

The point was made very forcibly at the revision courts that any student of 18 years of age would normally give his home address and not his address at college. However, this was questioned by the county registrar when he pointed out that it was not the student's residence but that of his parents. I know that this matter has arisen since at a number of other revision courts in Roscommon and the county registrar has stuck to his interpretation of the Supreme Court ruling. It is a sad and annoying situation. Many young people throughout rural Ireland could find themselves, in the event of a general or a local election, unregistered because the vast majority of them, having been deprived of the right to be registered in the county of their birth, would probably not bother to go and register at the place where they are attending college.

Many people who move out of Mayo or Roscommon and go to Dublin certainly would prefer to be registered at home — I am not talking about students but about people who move to Dublin to work — because they are familiar with the politicians in their home area and would prefer to go home to vote rather than be registered in Dublin. We all recognise that the law of the land does not permit this and we understand why. But when you are dealing with students it is a different situation because, as I already pointed out, those people move and do not remain at one address. The likelihood of their being registered is practically nil, except for those who are involved in the students' union or in some other organisation and for a political reason decide to register as occurred in the Waterford case.

I understand Senator O'Keeffe wants to share my time and I am prepared to give him five minutes of my time.

I appeal to the Minister to clarify the situation once and for all. It is fair enough if amending legislation needs to be introduced but I do not think the Minister will have to do that. If it has to go back to the Supreme Court, then that will have to be done because I do not think this can be left unclarified. I do not see how a judgment of the Supreme Court grants rights to students in Waterford and deprives students in other areas of the right to register at their place of birth.

This decision could have very serious implications. If one is to stick rigidly to the law, all students will have to be resident at home in September. They will not be resident on that date in the town where they will receive their third-level education and will not move there until approximately the middle of October. How can they be registered there when they are not resident there? That is a contradiction. A student is likely to be away from home at college for approximately 130 days each year. In other words, he spends a far greater portion of the year living at his parents' residence, using his parents address than he does at college. It would be utterly wrong to deprive a student of the opportunity of being registered at his place of birth.

I ask the Minister to clarify the situation. I have not come here with a chip on my shoulder. I have no wish to criticise the county registrar's interpretation of the Supreme Court judgment but my interpretation is different from that of the county registrar. I believe a student is entitled to be registered at his place of birth and that is my concern.

I will be brief because I want clarification of this issue. I lecture in a third level institution and the right to vote is a major issue for students. Many of them have registereden bloc, as it were, with a view to having an impact on the local elections. However, my view would be different from that of Senator Naughten. I find that many students want butter on both sides of their bread. They want to be registered where they are attending school and, at the same time, they want to be maintained on the register at their place of birth.

Looking at the interpretation of the Supreme Court case, I wonder if the Minister could clarify whether they have the right to be registered in both places. This right is not granted to people who are working away from home for five or six days a week. Is it likely that the situation regarding registration will be changed for students and does not give people working away from home a similar right?

There are 36 weeks, approximately, in the school year. I can understand that students may not be at home during the rest of the time. They may be working during the three month summer period and may not be available to vote. I am looking for clarification from the Minister on this issue because it is a talking point in all third level institutions because of the local elections this year.

A Chathaoirligh, I must confess that I approach this debate hesitantly and with considerable trepidation. In discussing this matter at all we are treading a very delicate line between what is appropriate to us as legislators and what may be more appropriate to another institution of the State — the courts and the judicial process.

The procedure for the registration of electors is a statutory process in which no role is assigned to me as Minister. In order to be helpful to Senators, I propose to set out this process as clearly and as succinctly as possible. It will be appreciated that I must be most careful not to comment, favourably or otherwise, on the manner in which the authorities involved discharge their statutory role. In particular, it would be grossly inappropriate for me to express any opinion in relation to the interpretation of the relevant legal provisions either by county registrars generally or by any particular county registrar.

In carrying out his functions under the electoral law, the county registrar is an independent statutory officer and is not subject to direction by the Minister. There is a process laid down by law under which his decisions may be reviewed but they may only be reviewed in this way and not in any other.

The procedure for the registration of electors is set out in the Electoral Act, 1963 and in regulations made thereunder. Briefly, a draft register is prepared by the registration authority, which is the county council or county borough corporation, following house to house or other adequate inquiry. The draft is published and is made available for inspection in public offices throughout the registration area. The public are exhorted by advertising campaigns conducted by the registration authorities and by my Department to examine the draft to ensure that it is adequate.

Any person may make a claim for the addition or deletion of a name. The registration authority, as far as possible, checks out the facts alleged in each claim. The list of claims is published and each claim is referred to the county registrar for ruling. Each person affected by a claim is given notice of the time and place at which the claim will be ruled on and of his or her right to attend or be represented and give evidence, including if necessary, sworn evidence. The county registrar rules on each claim at a public sitting usually referred to as a "revision court" or a "revision sitting".

The persons concerned are notified of the ruling on the claim and of their right, if dissatisfied, to appeal against the decision of the county registrar to the Circuit Court and of the right of further appeal, on a point of law, to the Supreme Court. This process is spelled out in the law. It will be noted that it is a legal process. It will also be noted that the Minister has no role and no right of intervention.

In pursuance of the process I have just described, certain students of Waterford Regional Technical College appealed to the Supreme Court against a decision of the relevant county registrar which had been upheld by the Circuit Court. I am conscious of the pitfalls involved in attempting to summarise or paraphase a judgment of the Supreme Court. I am, therefore, arranging to have copies of the judgment placed in the Library so that Senators will be able to consult it for themselves. To give a general indication of the trend of the judgment I would quote the following extract fromThe Irish Times report on the case published in their Law Report on 4 February:

On a proper construction of section 5 of the Electoral Act, 1963, as amended, an individual may be ordinarily resident in more than one constituency, and a student who resides away from home while attending college will be ordinarily resident both in the constituency of his or her family home, and at least during the academic year, in the constituency in which his or her college is situate. Furthermore, Article 16.4 of the Constitution, while imposing a ban upon double voting at a Dáil election, does not forbid double registration.

The Supreme Court judgment is the authoritive statement of the law on the point and must be complied with. That much said, there are many questions arising out of the judgment and it is now up to the individual county registrars to interpret as they think fit the precise effect of the judgment in relation to the individual claims coming before them. It would be quite inappropriate for me, as Minister to purport to give them any guidance. But as I have indicated, there is a specific statutory process by which the ruling of a county registrar on any claim can be reviewed by the courts. I would hope, too, that, in the light of their experience with the present register, county registrars may decide to share with one another the experience which each will have gained and review the different kind of cases arising with a view, as far as possible, to establishing a uniform approach in relation to future registers.

So far I have been talking about the legal effect of the court judgment. The judgment also has some very serious implications for us as legislators and as public representatives. However the judgment is interpreted in individual cases, it seems certain that there will be a substantial element of duplicate registration. This raises an obvious and very worrying possibility of electoral abuse, particularly personation. As legislators we must give very serious thought to this.

The court judgment does not involve a constitutional interpretation, it is concerned only with an interpretation of the existing law. It is, therefore, open to the Oireachtas to consider amendment of the law. For example, the Oireachtas could restore the situation to what we all assumed it to be before the court judgment, and provide that no person may be registered more than once as an elector. Given the nature of the matter I would think that any move in this regard should preferably be taken by way of agreement.

There are many thoughts that would occur to one on this matter but this is not the time to dwell on them. We will all get an opportunity of expressing them at a later date this year.

The Seanad adjourned at 4.30 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 27 February 1991.