This involves citizenship applicants being assessed on all aspects of their criminal history – from cautions through to custodial sentences – and immigration record.
Below we look at this requirement in detail, from what factors will be taken into account by the UK Home Office to what you can do to avoid refusal on the grounds of good character.
What is the good character requirement?
Under the British Nationality Act 1981 (BNA), when applying to naturalise or register as a British citizen, most applicants will need to satisfy a good character requirement. This is a mandatory requirement, although the BNA does not provide any statutory definition. Instead, the question of ‘good character’ is assessed on the basis of Home Office policy guidance.
Re-issued on 30 September 2020, primarily to reflect the post-Brexit requirement for EEA nationals to comply with UK immigration laws, this guidance sets out the types of conduct which must be taken into account by the Home Office when assessing good character.
Where there is evidence of any one of the long list of issues under the guidance that would indicate that a person is not of good character, or evidence that otherwise casts serious doubts on the applicant’s character, then their application for citizenship will normally be refused.
When does the good character requirement apply?
The good character requirement applies to most applicants applying for naturalisation or registration as a British citizen. This requirement previously only existed for naturalisation applications, but this has since been extended to other routes for citizenship.
All applicants aged 10 or over at the date of their application must meet the good character requirement, although the Home Office guidance contains specific instructions for assessing the good character of children aged between 10 to 18.
All applicants under the age of 10 are exempt from meeting this requirement.
There are also certain categories of individuals who are exempt from demonstrating they are of good character. This includes those applying under the statelessness provisions or those who have no other citizenship.
Further, following amendments made by the British Nationality Act 1981 (Remedial) Order 2019, individuals who would automatically have been born British but for the fact that they were born before 1983 to British mothers or before 2006 to unmarried parents are also exempt. In these types of cases, where individuals have been denied British citizenship by historic legislative bias, they no longer need to demonstrate that they are of good character where it would be discriminatory to require them to do so.
How do you meet the good character requirement?
There are various factors that can impact good character in the context of an application for naturalisation or registration as a British citizen. The Home Office guidance runs to 54 pages and includes a long non-exhaustive list of issues which would indicate that a person is not of good character and would therefore lead to refusal.
A person will not normally be assessed as being of good character if there is evidence to suggest that any one of the following apply:
- Criminality: if an applicant has not respected or is not prepared to abide by the law, for example, where they’ve been convicted of a crime either in the UK or overseas, or where there are reasonable grounds to suspect they’ve been involved in criminal activity. This can include any information of involvement with a gang or association with known criminals.
- International crimes, terrorism and other conduct not conducive to the public good: if an applicant has been associated with or involved in war crimes, crimes against peace or humanity, genocide, serious human rights violations or terrorism, whether in the UK or elsewhere. This includes where an applicant has engaged in extremist activity, unless they’ve publicly retracted their views and it’s clear they’ve not re-engaged in such behaviour.
- Financial soundness: if an applicant’s financial affairs have not been in appropriate order, for example, where they’ve failed to pay taxes for which they were liable or have accrued significant debts. This could include where a person has been declared bankrupt, where they’ve been a director of a company that has been forced into liquidation, or where they’ve deliberately and recklessly built up debts with no serious intention of paying them off.
- Notoriety: if an applicant’s activities have been notorious such that this conduct casts serious doubt on their standing in the local community. This is where, by the scale and level of their conduct, they’ve made themselves notorious in their local or wider community. This could include persistent anti-social behaviour or publicly expressing unsavoury views.
- Deception and dishonesty: if the applicant has been deliberately deceptive or dishonest in their dealings with other government departments, for example, fraudulently claiming benefits. It also includes any deception or dishonesty in previous immigration applications or during the current citizenship application process, where any lies or attempts to conceal the truth during this process can, of itself, provide a ground for refusal.
- Immigration-related matters: if an applicant has breached UK immigration laws, for example, overstaying, failure to comply with any reporting requirements, absconding, illegal working, illegal entry, sham marriage and assisting illegal immigration. This also includes EEA nationals who have failed to comply with any applicable requirements over the past 10 years including, where relevant, having comprehensive sickness insurance in place.
- Deprivation: if an applicant has previously been deprived of citizenship. In some cases, a person may be permanently deprived from ever successfully applying for British citizenship. This could include where they’ve been convicted of a serious criminal offence for which they received a lengthy custodial sentence, where they’ve hired illegal workers or been involved in an attempt to assist another person in the evasion of immigration control.
What will a caseworker look for when assessing good character?
Under the Home Office policy guidance, each application must be considered on its own individual merits, where the caseworker must be satisfied that an applicant is of good character applying the relevant balance of probabilities test to the available evidence.
The various adverse factors set out under the guidance provide a basis upon which an application will normally be refused, although in certain cases the decision-maker may be able to exercise some discretion. The caseworker can also have regard to other matters that cast doubt on an applicant’s character, even if these factors are not expressly cited in the guidance.
In respect of many of the factors specifically set out as a basis for refusal, the guidance provides a timeframe within which any evidence of ‘bad character’ should be taken into account. This means, for example, that not every past breach of immigration laws will trigger an automatic refusal, where the caseworker will typically be looking at breaches during the past 10 years. This 10-year timeframe also applies to various other adverse factors, such as evidence of dishonesty in a previous immigration application.
In relation to criminality, there are a series of sentence-based thresholds providing periods of exclusion from qualifying for British citizenship. Under these thresholds, an application will normally be refused if the applicant has a criminal conviction for which they were given:
- A custodial sentence of at least 4 years
- A custodial sentence of at least 12 months but less than 4 years, unless a period of 15 years has passed since the end of the sentence
- A custodial sentence of less than 12 months, unless a period of 10 years has passed
- A non-custodial sentence or out-of-court disposal, that is recorded on their criminal record and which took place in the 3 year period prior to the date of application.
Even if any sentence imposed would not normally in itself be a reason for refusal, the application can still be refused if, for example, the applicant is a persistent offender and their overall pattern of offending indicates they are not of good character. This can include a series of offences committed within a short timeframe or a long history of minor offences.
Further, an applicant is usually required to disclose all convictions, even if they are classed as ‘spent’ under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. This is because regard can be had to any criminality, regardless of when this took place, when assessing good character as a whole.
What if you fail the good character test?
If the good character requirement is not met, an application will normally be refused. That said, there are circumstances in which a person might exceptionally be granted citizenship. An exceptional case is one where there are mitigating circumstances which mean it would still be appropriate to grant citizenship, even though the application would normally be unsuccessful.
Examples of when an application may be granted include where:
- The applicant’s criminal conviction is for an offence not recognised in the UK or where there is no comparable offence, such as homosexuality or membership of a trade union.
- The applicant has one single non-custodial sentence which occurred within the first 2 years of the preceding 3, and there are strong factors which suggest the person is of good character in all other regards.
- The applicant has one single conviction but has lived in the UK all their life or since a young age and the conviction was many years ago.
If the good character requirement is not met on grounds other than those that fall within a category for an exceptional grant, a person may be able to reapply when they are more likely to meet this requirement.
However, in cases where the refusal of their application was based on fraud, false representation or the concealment of material fact, any further application made within a period of 10 years will normally be refused.
Can applicants do anything to avoid a refusal on the grounds of good character?
When making an application for citizenship, timing can be crucial. Often, it can be best to wait until you have a straightforward application, free from any applicable timeframe under the policy guidance within which an adverse factor will automatically be taken into account.
In the case of someone who has overstayed, for example, you might want to wait until 10 years have passed from the end of your period of overstay. That said, discretion to overlook certain immigration breaches can still be exercised by the Home Office in limited circumstances, especially where this is the sole adverse factor weighing against your good character. Taking professional advice will help you to understand your options based on the facts of your case. An advisor specialising in nationality applications can also assess the nature and extent of any evidence needed in support of your application, including evidence that may mitigate any adverse factors or have a positive bearing on your overall good character assessment.
It is important to bear in mind that consideration must be given by caseworkers to all aspects of your character when assessing the good character requirement. This is not limited to negative factors, but must also take into account positive factors. Importantly, the ‘good character requirement’ guidance is guidance only, where it is always possible, with the right advice and approach, to put forward arguments to rebut the presumption of refusal.
DavidsonMorris are specialists in naturalisation applications. We support individuals through the application process for British citizenship, including guidance on the good character requirement, particularly where issues such past criminal records or immigration history may be problematic.
The guidance in this area is complex and subject to frequent change. Taking professional advice can help ensure you are working to current requirements and avoid issues that could impact your prospects of making a successful application.
For advice on your circumstances, contact us.
Good character requirement FAQs
What is good character in immigration law?
When applying to register or naturalise as a British citizen, applicants will usually need to satisfy a good character requirement. There are various factors that can impact this requirement including criminality, immigration breaches and dishonesty.
What will the Home Office check to confirm good character?
When assessing good character, the Home Office will carry out various checks against the information provided in the nationality application. Where an applicant fails to provide full and frank disclosure of any adverse factors, their application may be refused.
Can you get a UK visa if you have a criminal record?
You can still get a UK visa with a criminal record, although much will depend on the nature of the offence and the sentencing received. In some cases, the applicable sentencing threshold will mean an application will normally be refused.
Last updated: 7 October 2022