22 December 2017
A couple of months ago there was a curious case about British citizenship which got into the mainstream media. Mr Shane Ridge was a 21-year-old man who had been born in England. His father was British and his mother had been born in Australia - when her parents were there on holiday - but both her parents were British. Shane’s parents had not been married when he was born, but he did not have any reason to imagine that he was not a British citizen.

The facts of the case are not entirely clear, but in any event what happened was that when he applied for the first time for a British passport the Home Office told him that he could not have one, because he was not a British citizen. On the other hand, he did apparently hold Australian citizenship. This was because his mother held Australian citizenship - on the basis of having been born in Australia - and it had evidently passed on to him. So the Home Office suggested that, as he had no immigration status in the UK, he could relocate to Australia.

Over the years many British people have voluntarily emigrated to Australia (probably because of the better weather) but of course it comes as rather a shock when the Government tells you that you have to emigrate there - as, students of Australian history may tell you, used to happen to British convicts back in the old days.

After a certain amount of flurry in the media the Home Office concentrated its collective mind and informed Shane that they had made a mistake, that he was indeed a British citizen, that he therefore was entitled to a British passport, and that he could stay here if he wanted to.

The moral of this story is not so much that the Home Office sometimes makes wrong decisions - something we surely already know - but that British nationality law and entitlement to British citizenship can be complicated.

One cannot of course legally hold a British citizen passport without being a British citizen but, on the other hand, one can easily be entitled to British citizenship without holding a British citizen passport. As in Shane’s case, one may never have wanted to or needed to apply for one. It can sometimes be that one thinks that one is entitled to British citizenship, but mistakenly - and it is always best to take good legal advice about this if you are not sure about your situation.

But it can also be the converse case that one is entitled to British citizenship but is not aware of it and not really bothered about it. This might seem a rather academic subject, but in a more recent matter which came up in the media (also, as it happens, in connection with Australia), it became crucially important.

Australian members of Parliament are not allowed, by law, to hold dual nationality. But it emerged that some such people do hold dual Australian/British citizenship, but not necessarily with their knowledge. It is quite plausible that someone could hold Australian citizenship and not really care if they additionally hold British citizenship: the Australian passport is quite a good one and it will get you into nearly as many territories visa-free as the British one.

So some Australian MPs are making urgent enquiries with the UK Home Office to try and ascertain whether they do indeed hold British citizenship.

But, because of the historical connections, there are quite a lot of Australians who have British parentage and this, in some cases, will have conferred British citizenship on them. To take a nice simple situation, if you were born in Australia - or any other foreign country for that matter - and your parents were married, they were both British and they had both been born in the UK, then you are a British citizen and will have been so since you were born.

Even if you fall short of this paradigm case you still might be a British citizen if you were born outside the UK, but things can get complicated. It makes a difference whether or not you were born before 1 January 1983 (which is when the dreaded British Nationality Act 1981 came into effect, which brought about huge changes in British nationality law).

And historically it made a difference whether or not your parents were married, because a father could not pass on British citizenship to an illegitimate child - this seems to have been something that might have confused the Home Office in Shane’s case. This discrimination has now been removed by legislation, but in some cases it requires an application for registration to acquire British citizenship where it was denied by the discriminatory principle.

You might have automatically acquired British citizenship on the basis of just one qualifying parent, but your entitlement may depend on where your parent or parents born. If you were born outside the UK and both your parents were British citizens but neither of them was born in the UK you may not be British yourself.

As is obvious from this brief exposition, British nationality law can be an intricate field. And there can in some instances be a complex interaction between British nationality and the nationality law of the country where you are living. So if you are not sure about your British nationality status you should take good legal advice.

Garth Coates Solicitors