The various vagaries of British nationality law

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Yesterday (Tuesday 29 August 2017), the Guardian reported that a 21 year old man who was born and raised in UK has been told by the Home Office that he is not a British citizen and should make arrangements to leave the country. Many are questioning how this can possibly happen. The answer: British nationality law is incredibly complicated.

Being born in the UK is not enough to make a person British; they must also have a parent who is British, or settled in the UK (i.e. they have indefinite leave to remain in the UK or have acquired permanent residence under EU free movement law). However, there are various other factors that need to taken into account to determine whether a person is British from birth. It depends, not only on where they were born and the immigration status of their parents, but also on: when they were born; the gender of their British parent; how their British parent obtained British nationality; and whether their parents were married at the time of their birth.

Taking these in turn:

  1. British nationality law has changed numerous times over the years. There are different rules for those born prior to 1 January 1983, those born between 1 January 1983 and 1 July 2006, and those born after 1 July 2006;
  2. The gender of the British parent is relevant because prior to 1 January 1983 women could not pass on their British citizenship to their children. Anyone born to a British mother prior to 1 January 1981 is not automatically a British citizen. However, since 30 April 2003, they have been able to apply for registration as a British citizen;
  3. British citizenship can only be passed down one generation. To pass on citizenship to your children, you must be British “otherwise than by decent”. This means that you were either born in the UK or were naturalised as a British citizen. If you were not born in the UK and are only British by decent (i.e. because once of your parents was British) then you cannot pass on citizenship to your children. This is why the way in which the British parent acquired British citizenship needs to be investigated;
  4. Prior to 1 July 2006 a father was defined in British nationality law as the person married to the woman who gives birth to the child. Thus children born out of wedlock could not acquire British citizenship from their biological father. Since 6 April 2015 people in this situation have been able to apply for registration as a British citizen.   

The subject of the Guardian article, Shane Ridge, was born in the UK to a British father and an Australian mother. However his parents were not married at the time of his birth. As such, he did not acquire British citizenship at birth from his father. He therefore has no right to live in the UK (often referred to as a “right of abode” – see section 2(1) of the Immigration act 1971). He was unaware of this until he received a letter advising him his driving licence would be revoked due to his immigration status. 

Despite the innocent circumstances of his predicament, Shane Ridge is subject to the full force of the UK’s hostile environment which prevents him from driving, working, renting accommodation, or opening a bank account in the UK (see this post of the Free Movement blog for further information).  

Unfortunately immigration law does not distinguish between those who have wilfully ignored or breached UK immigration law and those who have inadvertently found themselves on the wrong side of the law through no fault of their own. Far too frequently people discover, only once it is too late, that they do not have the immigration status they thought they had and have been committing numerous criminal offences simply by continuing their life in the UK. Stories like Shane Ridge’s demonstrate how incredibly easy it is to fall foul of the UK’s needlessly complicated immigration and nationality laws.

UPDATE: The Home Office have issued a statement confirming that Shane Ridge is in fact British by birth as his mother, who was not British at the time of Shane's birth, had indefinite leave to remain (a.k.a settled status) in the UK at the time of his birth. This is most likely due to the treatment of Commonwealth citizens under UK law prior to 1 January 1983 (when the British Nationality Act 1981 came into force). Certain Commonwealth citizens who were living in the UK prior to 1983 have a right of abode in the UK.