The Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, announced over the weekend a change to the Good Character requirements associated with applications for British citizenship. These changes were brought in and took effect (without notice) on Monday 31 July 2023 via changes to the Good Character guidance document.

The Home Secretary’s announcement and guidance states that the purpose of the changes is to increase the barriers to prevent serious criminals from becoming British by aligning the Good Character requirements with the criminality thresholds set out elsewhere in the immigration rules.

Changes to the Good Character guidance document

The changes remove the previous policy where some people could acquire British citizenship after a prescribed number of years had passed since the end of their sentence – this was regardless of the type of crime or where it was committed. These changes will apply to most applications for citizenship submitted by anyone aged 10 or over.

Whilst it is at the discretion of the Home Office, especially in the context of certain children, It is now the case that an application for citizenship would normally be refused where an applicant:

  • has received a custodial sentence of at least 12 months in the UK or overseas
  • has consecutive sentences totalling at least 12 months in the UK or overseas
  • are a persistent offender who shows a particular disregard for the law
  • have committed an offence which has caused serious harm
  • have committed a sexual offence or their details are recorded by the police on a register.

Furthermore, A person must be refused if they have:

  • a custodial sentence of less than 12 months or
  • a non-custodial sentence or out-of-court disposal recorded on their criminal record and the Home Office official is not satisfied, on the balance of probabilities, that the applicant is of good character.

The guidance document then points to a series of considerations caseworkers must follow to establish whether, on balance, the person’s application must be refused.

Anyone who believes the above applies to them should seek advice if they wish to become a British citizen. Nationality law is complex and these changes to the Good Character requirements make it more so. Applicants will likely require careful legal submissions prepared if they wish to apply.

According to the guidance, any submissions in applications from 31 July 2023 to waive the requirement from a person who has been convicted with a sentence of 12 months or more, or consecutive sentences totalling 12 months or more must be approved by ministers. This suggests it is only likely in the most exceptional of cases you can expect to pass the Good Character requirement where you fall into any of the above criteria.

These changes are arguably a significant departure from the status quo. The Good Character requirements have been adapted over the years, but this appears to be the most significant change in sometime.

Given that there are likely many thousands of people granted status via the EU Settlement Scheme who will fall into the above categories along with many young people and beneficiaries of different types of status, there will be a considerable number of people now barred from becoming British. Applications that are refused do not attract a refund of the fees paid. Given that the fees in general are very high (currently £1330 to submit a naturalisation application), the risk of losing the money paid will be a significant deterrent to many with criminal convictions.

The changes are particularly disappointing where there is an entitlement to become British and the Good Character requirement applies, such as a child who has settled in the UK. The guidance does point to some flexibility in this area. The Home Office may exercise discretion where a child’s criminality would result in a lifetime refusal of any citizenship application. In these cases, the amount of time passed since the crime should be weighed up along with positive factors, such as any evidence of rehabilitation. Again though, the risks associated with losing the fee following a rejection will likely dissuade people from applying.

All in all, regardless of discretion and opportunities for flexibility within the policy, careful and detailed submission will be required where the above criteria are met.

Should you be impacted by any of the issues raised in this article and require advice, please contact the immigration team and we would be happy to help.