Recent UK nationality law changes have now made it easier for some South Africans to claim British citizenship through UK-born grandparents. An amendment to the British Nationality Act of 1981, known as “Section 4L”, which came into effect in 2022, means that many who previously would not have qualified for UK citizenship through a grandparent can now apply. John Dunn, director of Sable International, explains the situation.
In plain English, 4L states that you can apply to be registered for British citizenship if you can show you would have become a British citizen if it weren’t for historical legislative unfairness, an act or omission of a public authority, or exceptional circumstances relating to your case.
Historical legislative unfairness includes cases where you would have received or maintained British Subject status, CUKC (Citizen of the UK and Colonies) status, or British citizenship if the law had:
- Treated males and females equally, or
- Treated children of unmarried couples in the same way as children of married couples, or
- Treated children of couples where the mother was married to someone other than the child’s biological father the same as children of couples where the mother was married to the natural father
Generally, British citizenship can only be passed down one generation through descent. That means that if your grandparent was born in the UK and then left and had a child outside of the UK (your parent), your parent could possibly claim British citizenship, but you would be unable to (although you might be able to apply for an Ancestry visa).
In 2018, as a direct result of a Supreme Court judgment, a new route to British citizenship became available for those born in a foreign country to a UK-born maternal grandfather.
However, this route was not extended by the judgement or the Home Office to those with UK-born grandmothers. There is an argument to be made that this is a case of legislative unfairness and those born in a foreign country before 1 January 1988 to UK-born grandmothers should be able to register for British citizenship under Section 4L.
Prior to 1983, British citizenship could only pass down the male line. The law has since been adjusted to allow those who would have been British citizens if not for that discrimination, to claim citizenship.
In old British law, a child’s father was considered to be the man who was married to their mother. This meant that children who were born outside of that relationship could not historically inherit British citizenship through their biological fathers.
For example, a child whose parents were in a relationship but unmarried at the time of their birth, or a child who was born to a mother who was separated from her husband, but who was not divorced yet, at the time of having a child with her new married partner.
In 2006, the law changed to allow children born out of wedlock to inherit citizenship from their biological fathers. However, children born prior to that date were not included and had to make an expensive manual application to argue for their right to inherit citizenship.
In 2016, the UK added a set of limiting new provisions for certain classes of illegitimate children to be able to register as British citizens. However, in our opinion, these new provisions only benefited clients who would have been British citizens if their parents were married before their respective births, and not those who would be British citizens if their grandparents were married before the relevant parent’s birth. We believe Section 4L will address this unfairness.
It is important to note that anyone who qualifies to register as a British citizen under the new law change, can register their children afterwards. Not only will the children be eligible to apply, but once they do, the children’s children will qualify. So with the new law amendment, it will technically go down two generations, which is not usually the case for British Citizenship.
A word of caution - an application for citizenship using Section 4L is complex as it requires that you set out the precise legislation and section that you believe was discriminatory.
Written by John Dunn, Director, Sable International
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