Johnson v Secretary of State for the Home Department

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
CourtSupreme Court
JudgeLord Kerr,Lord Toulson,Lady Hale,Lord Hughes,Lord Reed
Judgment Date19 October 2016
Neutral Citation[2016] UKSC 56

[2016] UKSC 56


Michaelmas Term

On appeal from: [2016] EWCA Civ 22


Lady Hale, Deputy President

Lord Kerr

Lord Reed

Lord Hughes

Lord Toulson

R (on the application of Johnson)
Secretary of State for the Home Department


Hugh Southey QC Paul Turner (Instructed by Barnes Harrild and Dyer)


Tim Eicke QC Edward Brown (Instructed by The Government Legal Department)

Lady Hale

(with whom Lord Kerr, Lord Reed, Lord Hughes and Lord Toulson agree)


The fundamental issue in this case is a simple one. Is it compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights to deny British citizenship to the child of a British father and a non-British mother simply because they were not married to one another at the time of his birth or at any time thereafter? If the parents had been married to one another, their child would have been a British citizen. If the mother had been British and the father non-British, their child would have been a British citizen. If the child had been born after 1 July 2006 he would have been a British citizen. The child is not responsible for the marital status of his parents or the date of his birth, yet it is he who suffers the consequences.


There are many benefits to being a British citizen, among them the right to vote, the right to live and to work here without needing permission to do so, and everything that comes along with those rights. This case is about the right not to be deported on the ground that one is a "foreign criminal" whose presence here is not conducive to the public good. But the unsympathetic context in which the issue arises should not distract us from the importance of the issue to anyone who was born to unmarried parents at the relevant time.

The facts

The appellant was born on 18 March 1985 in Jamaica. His mother was Jamaican and his father British. His paternity is not in doubt. His parents were not married to one another. Under the law then in force the appellant became a citizen of Jamaica but not a British citizen. His father brought him to the United Kingdom in 1989, when he was aged four, and he has lived here ever since. He or his father might have made an application for him to be registered as a British citizen while he was still a child and it would have been the policy of the UK government to grant such an application provided that, if the child was 16 or over, he was of good character. But no such application was made. He was, however, granted indefinite leave to remain here in 1992, just before his seventh birthday.


Neither has the appellant since applied to be registered as a British citizen. It is accepted that such an application would not succeed, because the appellant cannot demonstrate that he is of good character. He has a very serious criminal record and has been convicted of offences from 2003, the year in which he reached the age of 18, until 2008, when he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to nine years' imprisonment.


In March 2011, the Secretary of State served notice upon him that he was liable to automatic deportation as a "foreign criminal" under section 32(5) of the UK Borders Act 2007. A deportation order was made in August that same year. On appeal, the First-tier Tribunal held that he had both a private and a family life in this country but that his deportation was a proportionate and lawful interference with them. The tribunal remitted to the Secretary of State the question whether his deportation was unlawfully discriminatory, given that he would not have been liable to deportation had his parents been married to one another. One year later, in August 2012, the Secretary of State set removal directions for his removal on 16 September 2012 and these judicial review proceedings were launched to challenge them, principally on the ground that he still had an extant appeal.


The removal directions were stayed by the court and on 19 November 2012 the Secretary of State accepted that they should not have been issued given the tribunal's decision to remit. On 23 November 2012, she reconsidered her deportation decision but decided that it was not unlawfully discriminatory and refused to revoke it. She also certified that the appellant's claim was clearly unfounded and thus that he had no right of appeal within this country against the decision. These proceedings were amended to challenge that decision and its certification.


In July 2014, Dingemans J held that the discrimination against a child of unmarried parents was not justified at the time of his birth and continued to be unjustified; that there had been a violation of article 14 of the Convention read with article 8; and that the certification of the claim as clearly unfounded was unlawful. He quashed the certificate, but declined either to read the relevant legislative provisions so as to entitle the appellant to British citizenship under section 3(1) of the Human Rights Act 1998 or to make a declaration of incompatibility under section 4: [2014] EWHC 2386 (Admin).


In January 2016, the Court of Appeal allowed the Secretary of State's appeal, finding that there had been no violation of the Convention rights at the time of the appellant's birth in 1985 and no wrong for which the UK courts could have given a remedy then. The matter had to be judged at that time rather than as a continuing act. Any violation had taken effect before the Human Rights Act came into force. Hence there was no violation of the Convention rights and thus the claim could be certified as clearly unfounded: [2016] EWCA Civ 22. The appellant now appeals to this court.

British Nationality Law

At all material times, section 2(1)(a) of the British Nationality Act 1981 provided (and still provides):

"A person born outside the United Kingdom … shall be a British citizen if at the time of the birth his father or mother —

(a) is a British citizen otherwise than by descent …"


However, until amended by the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, section 50(9) of the 1981 Act provided the following definition of a person's mother and father:

"For the purposes of this Act — (a) the relationship of mother and child shall be taken to exist between a woman and any child (legitimate or illegitimate) born to her; but (b) … the relationship of father and child shall be taken to exist only between a man and any legitimate child born to him; and the expressions 'mother', 'father', 'parent', 'child' and 'descended' shall be construed accordingly."


Nevertheless, section 47 of the 1981 Act, until its repeal by section 9(4) of the 2002 Act, provided that a person born out of wedlock but legitimated by the subsequent marriage of his parents (if their marriage operated to legitimate him by the law of the place where the father was domiciled when the marriage took place) was to be treated as from the date of the marriage as if he had been born legitimate.


Section 50(9) of the 1981 Act was amended, and a new section 50(9A) added, by section 9(1) of the 2002 Act, with effect from 1 July 2006, as follows:

"(9) For the purposes of this Act a child's mother is the woman who gives birth to the child.

(9A) For the purposes of this Act a child's father is … (c) … a person who satisfies prescribed requirements as to proof of paternity."

Section 162(5) of the 2002 Act made it clear that section 9 would have effect only in relation to a child born on or after the date appointed by the Secretary of State, which was 1 July 2006. Thus persons born before that date can still take advantage of the legitimation provision in section 47.


These provisions define people who are automatically entitled to British citizenship, whether they want it or not. Other people can apply to be registered as British citizens. Section 3(1) of the 1981 Act provides that applications may be made while a person is a minor for him to be registered as a British citizen; and from 1987 onwards it was the policy of the Secretary of State to grant, on satisfactory proof of paternity, applications made by or on behalf of minors whose unmarried fathers were British citizens, who were living in the United Kingdom, and who, if aged 16 or over, were of good character. Section 65 of the Immigration Act 2014 has now introduced sections 4E to 4I into the 1981 Act, giving a specific right to be registered to people who were unable to acquire citizenship automatically because their father was not married to their mother. But this is subject to the general provision governing applications for registration, under section 41A of the 1981 Act, that such an application "must not be granted unless the Secretary of State is satisfied that the adult or young person is of good character".

The progressive removal of discrimination against children of unmarried parents

At common law, a child of parents who were not married to one another at the time of his birth was filius nullius or "nobody's child". The law scarcely recognised his relationship with his mother, let alone with his father. Relationships traced otherwise than through marriage were ignored for the purpose of succession and other dispositions of property. References to children or other relationships in legislation or other legal instruments were presumed to refer only to those born within or traced through marriage. Case law and statute gradually accorded limited recognition to the relationship between mother and child but scarcely any to the relationship between father and child. The first major reform came with the Family Law Reform Act 1969, which implemented the recommendations of the Report of the Russell Committee on The Law of Succession in relation to Illegitimate Persons (1966, Cmnd 3051). As the Committee observed, in the archaic language of the time (pp 4–5):

"At the root of any suggestion for the improvement...

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