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Are you of good character?

If you are age 10 or over and are applying to become a British citizen, the Secretary of State will need to be satisfied that you are of “good character”. Although the requirement is worded slightly differently depending on whether the application is for registration or naturalisation, effectively the test is the same as in both types of application the onus is on the applicant to satisfy the Secretary of State that he or she is of good character.

What does it mean to be of “good character”?

Strangely, although it is a statutory requirement for applicants to be of “good character” (or, in registration applications, for the Secretary of State to be satisfied that they are of good character) there is no statutory definition of the term. This means that the only relevant definition is the one that the Secretary of State applies when deciding the relevant application. In accordance with general principles of public law this should be in accordance with the Secretary of State’s published policy on the issue. Failure of the Secretary of State to apply her own policy could provide a basis for an application for judicial review. Additionally, it may be possible to challenge the application of the policy in a particular case.

Home Office policy on good character

The published policy on good character has been reissued on several occasions – most recently for all decisions taken on or after 11 December 2014. A further update can be expected soon as the relevant application forms and associated guidance notes were updated on 26 March 2015 and the Secretary of State recently announced a “… full review of citizenship law to make sure successful applicants for citizenship respect British values.” Perhaps unsurprisingly any changes have generally made the good character test harder to meet and the most recent changes continue in the same direction. It appears likely that the good character test will become even more stringently applied in future, and that additional tests (such as for “British values”) may be introduced.

The current policy sets out several headings under which good character can be assessed. These are: criminal behaviour (including convictions that lead to custodial and non-custodial sentences, other out-of-court disposals such as cautions, pending prosecutions and suspected criminal activity); war crimes, terrorism and other non-conducive activity; financial soundness; notoriety; deception and dishonesty (particularly in relation to dealings with UK government departments); immigration related issues; and exceptional grants. This list is not exhaustive so other issues not mentioned may still lead to an application being refused.

The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (which as the name suggests recognises and provides for the fact that individuals can and do change over time) has not applied to nationality applications since 12 December 2012. As a result applications are likely to be refused even if the only blemish on an individual’s character is a caution issued in the last three years (the editor of one of the UK’s respectable newspapers would currently be refused). Whilst most decisions are made by relatively junior Home Office staff, some applications require higher level approval. An applicant who received a four year custodial sentence is likely to be automatically refused and, as any proposal to grant citizenship would need to be approved by a Minister the application would have to be very well prepared to have any prospect of success.

Applications can be refused on grounds of good character if the applicant has deliberately and “recklessly built up debts”, been “reckless or irresponsible” in their financial affairs leading to bankruptcy or the liquidation of a company of which they were a director, or has “knowingly” claimed public funds to which they are not entitled.

Marital or other domestic problems, promiscuity or sexual preferences, drinking, gambling and eccentric appearance lifestyle or believes should not affect an application; however these (and other) matters may lead to an interview and possible refusal if the scale and persistence of their behaviour has made them notorious – even if just locally. High profile applications may well be refused so long as the anticipated public reaction does not “unduly” influence the decision maker.

The current published policy states that a parents’ application will “not normally” be refused on the basis of the actions of their children; however the newly published Guidance for adult naturalisation applications indicates that consideration will now be given to whether the parent “… may have been complicit in their activities or particularly negligent in ensuring their good behaviour, and whether this reflects on your own ability to meet the good character requirement.”

Involvement (whether or not as an applicant) with immigration offences including illegal entry, sham marriages, or obtaining leave by deception will likely lead to refusal and the High Court recently gave short shrift to an applicant who sought to rely on a previous, more generous policy on the issue of deception that had applied at the time of his application but not at the time of decision.

As ever in the public arena, a failure to disclose can often have worse consequences than the original issue. By way of example, as indicated above a single caution would lead to refusal for three years; by contrast a deliberate failure to disclose that caution may lead to refusal for a further ten years.

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