Briefing: EEA Citizens applying to Naturalise as British citizens by Chris Benn

On 14 May 2020 (1), amendments to the Home Office Nationality Policy Naturalisation guidance was indeed re-published. The Nationality Policy Naturalisation guidance is issued to Home Office caseworkers processing naturalisation applications to help them determine if an applicant meets the legal criteria to be naturalised. The guidance is publicly available so that those applying for naturalisation (and those assisting them to apply), can understand how the various criteria will be assessed and what evidence is required with the application to demonstrate the conditions are met.

In spite of what has been implied in certain media reports, the updated guidance does not constitute a change in the legal position for EEA citizens. Rather, it amended the sections relating to “Breaches of immigration law in the qualifying period”(2) and “People who are lawfully resident in the UK”(3) to include references to EEA citizens and their family members(4) who are relying on their grant of settled status (Indefinite Leave to Remain) under the EU settlement scheme (EUSS), to demonstrate that they are settled in the UK(5).

Nationality law requires a person naturalising to have a five-year or three-year lawful qualifying period, working back from the date they apply for naturalisation. The three-year lawful qualifying period is for those who are married to or are in a civil partnership with a British citizen. The five-year lawful qualifying period is for all other applicants. Before the EUSS existed, this lawful qualifying period criteria would normally be satisfied by an EEA citizen by acquiring EU/EEA permanent residency in the UK(6). The EEA citizen could then apply for naturalisation either 12 months after the acquisition of permanent residence or, immediately on obtaining permanent residence if they are married to or in a civil partnership with a British citizen.

The EUSS has changed the situation described above for some EEA citizens who wish to naturalise. This is because rather than applying for EU/EEA permanent residence documents, most EEA citizens with a 5-year residence in the UK now apply directly into the EUSS for settled status(7). However, because the EUSS application does not assess whether the applying EEA citizen was exercising their treaty rights in the UK, being granted settled status is not confirmation that the citizen was resident in the UK lawfully during the qualifying five years relied on.

The grant of settled status only confirms that the EEA citizen has been physically resident in the UK for five years at the point they applied to the EUSS. That is not to say that a citizen granted settled status has not been in the UK lawfully during their five-year qualifying period, only that the EUSS is not designed to assess this particular legal point. In other words, being granted settled status is not reliant on lawful UK residence. As a consequence, when an EEA citizen applies for naturalisation relying on their settled status to demonstrate that they are settled in the UK, the Home Office caseworker cannot tell whether they were lawfully residence in the UK for the period before they were granted EUSS status. Therefore, part of the naturalisation process has to include an assessment as to whether the EEA citizen was lawfully resident (rather than just resident), in the UK for the three or five-year qualifying period that applies to them.

When assessing lawful residence, any period after the citizen was granted settled status (or granted pre-settled status which was then converted into settled status), will be considered lawful because it is leave to remain granted under the 1971 Immigration Act. However, because the EUSS has only been in existence since August 2018 (and open to the whole EEA population since March 2019), any EEA citizen applying for naturalisation at the present time will have to rely on a period of lawful residence that pre-dates their grant of EUSS status. Therefore, what the Home Office caseworker must do according to the new guidance, is assess the period of lawful qualifying residence that pre-dates the grant of EUSS status, through the prism of the exercise of treaty rights. This will be the only way to tell whether the EEA citizen was in the UK lawfully for that period.

Carrying out the assessment in this way means that some EEA citizens who hold settled status will not be able to naturalise as British citizens if their pre-EUSS status was not in accordance with the Free Movement Directive/exercising treaty rights (for example an economically self-sufficient person who did not hold comprehensive sickness insurance). A citizen in this situation will need to wait for either five years or three years from the date that they were first granted EUSS status, in order to meet the lawful qualifying period to naturalise. This is what, as we previously reported, complicates the naturalisation process for EEA nationals.

The guidance does contain a discretion for the caseworker to overlook certain breaches of lawful residence which, which includes a situation where an EEA citizen did not hold comprehensive sickness insurance for example. The wording of the discretion says that the requirement to be lawfully resident will be disapplied where:

"the breach was because the applicant did not meet an additional/implicit condition of stay, rather than illegal entry or overstaying, such as an EEA or Swiss national not having CSI and can provide sufficient evidence to justify discretion being exercised in their favour”(8)

There is no information in the wording of the discretion as to what evidence, or situation will constitute one that justifies discretion being exercised in the applicant’s favour. Therefore, an EEA citizen wishing to naturalise but who may fall foul of the requirement to hold comprehensive sickness insurance, will not know whether or not their application would be successful based on the information provided as to how the discretion should operate. They risk the £1350 naturalisation application fee without any guarantee of a successful outcome(9).

From a practitioner’s perspective, it would be advisable that any applicant in a situation where there is a risk of being refused for not holding comprehensive sickness insurance not to apply for naturalisation (unless they were prepared for the outcome to be unsuccessful). The reason for this stance is that irrespective of the existence of the discretion to overlook the lack of comprehensive sickness insurance, the discretion is so ill-defined as to be meaningless to base legal advice on.

As set out above, there has not been any change to the legal requirements to become a naturalised British citizen, as all applicants for naturalisation irrespective of their nationality must have a five or three-year lawful qualifying period to rely on. However, some of the reporting around this new guidance, including our own, indicates or implies that the Home Office has made it more difficult for EEA citizens wishing to apply for naturalisation. Carrying out these checks in relation to lawful residence by making citizens demonstrate they were exercising treaty rights undoubtably creates an increased evidential burden on EEA citizens apply for naturalisation, particularly for those who have not applied for an EU/EEA permanent residence document in the past. However, the Home Office was always able to request this evidence even before the explicit guidance was published, as the guidance does not create a new legal requirement to be lawfully resident. Instead, it clarifies the way in which case workers should assess lawful residence for EEA citizens applying with settled status. Given that the EUSS opened initially in August 2018 and then to all EEA citizens in March 2019, it is evident that this guidance document could and should have been provided at a much earlier stage. This way EEA citizens would have had clarity on exactly what they are required to evidence when applying to naturalise. The delay in clarifying this need for EEA citizens to evidence that they were lawfully resident in the UK for the period before their EUSS status grant will increase the perception that there has been a change in the law or approach of the Home Office, and that it was only implemented to make life more difficult for EEA citizens wishing to become British after obtaining settled status.

(1) See Home Office document Nationality policy: Naturalisation as a British citizen by discretion Version 5.0
(2) Note that this is different the condition in the Good Character Requirement that requires in the 10 years pre-dating the naturalisation application, the applicant has complied with immigration requirements. The guidance states “Breach of the immigration laws’ for the purpose of the residence requirements refers only to unlawful residence. It does not include contravening immigration law in any other way, but this is considered as part of the good character requirement.” [page 25]
(3) See pages 25 - 31
(4) References to EEA citizen should be read to cover their non-EEA family members
(5) Being a settled resident is a condition which citizens of all nationalities must meet to naturalise and means there must be no time limit on the amount of time they can reside in the UK.
(6) Generally permanent residence is acquired after a five continuous period in the UK where the EEA citizen has been exercising “treaty rights” under the Free Movement Directive or the EU treaties.

(7) Those who qualify for pre-settled status (Limited Leave to Remain) cannot apply for naturalisation as they are not considered settled in the UK, one of the conditions to naturalise.
(8) See Guidance document page 28
(9) £80 would be refunded out of the total fee in the event of an unsuccessful application

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