A history of British nationality law

The Home Office issued new guidance yesterday (11 October 2017) entitled “Historical background information on nationality”. As highlighted in a previous blog post here, British nationality law can be particularly complex. The relevant law changes depending on the date of the person’s birth. There are different provisions for: those born before 1915; those born between 1915 and 1948; those born between 1949 and 1983; and those born after 1983. The guidance addresses the position up to the introduction of the British Nationally Act 1981 which came into force on 1 January 1983 and remains in force today. However, due to subsequent amendments to this Act, there is another relevant date which can affect applicants for British citizenship: 1 July 2006. This is the date that the definition of “father” was amended in the 1981 Act to allow, for the first time, children born out of wedlock to acquire citizenship from their father.

The guidance narrates the entire history of British nationality law from: the creation of the status “British Subject” at common law following the Acts of Union in 1707; to the introduction of naturalisation as a British subject by administrative grant at the Home Office in 1844 (prior to this a separate Act of Parliament was required for each applicant); to the first statutory codification of British nationality law by the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1914 (which was subsequently amended in 1918, 1922, 1933 and 1943);  to the introduction of the British Nationality Act 1948 and the introduction of the status of “citizen of the UK and Colonies (CUKC)” which was a sub-category within “British Subject status” (the other being “British subject: citizen of a Commonwealth country”); to the independence of former British colonies and the effect this had on citizenship law; to the introduction of the current Act governing applications for British citizenship, the British Nationality Act 1981.

The 1981 Act replaced CUKC with 3 separate types of citizenships:

  1. British citizenship - for people closely connected with the UK (including the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man)
  2. British Dependent Territories citizenship - for people connected with the dependencies
  3. British Overseas citizenship - for CUKCs who did not acquire either of the other citizenships at commencement on the 1981 Act

The definition of British Subject was also severely restricted and, for most purposes, replaced with the phrase “Commonwealth citizen”.  

Further changes were introduced by the British Overseas Territories Act 2002 which combined British Dependent Territories citizenship and British Overseas citizenship into one status: British overseas territories citizenship.

With such an array of different types of nationality, it is often difficult to keep track. In order to determine a person’s current status it is often necessary to trace their status from birth (or the birth of one of their parents), through each of the changes noted above (figuring out what legal status was conferred upon them when each new Act of Parliament was introduced), to determine whether they have any claim to some form of British nationality.  

Many may think this guidance will only be of historical interest; however it is surprising how frequently issues of historic British nationality law arise.