Friday 23 August 2019

Leaving the country for just one day could derail citizenship bid, judge's ruling suggests

(stock photo)
(stock photo)
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Thousands of people seeking Irish citizenship could be affected by a High Court ruling which means they must be continuously present in the State for a year before seeking naturalisation.

The ruling suggests that even an absence of a single day would be enough to derail an application for citizenship.

The judgment by Mr Justice Max Barrett, published on Tuesday, has been met with shock by immigration lawyers, some of whom have described it as "absurd" and contrary to the realities of modern life.

Department of Justice officials are studying the decision and it is feared thousands of applications will have to be put on hold until a solution - either through new legislation or an appeal - is found.

More than 10,000 people gained Irish citizenship last year.

The key issue in the ruling was the judge's interpretation of the word "continuous" in Section 15(1)(c) of the Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act.

The section says the Justice Minister can grant applications for naturalisation where he is satisfied the applicant "has had a period of one year's continuous residence in the State immediately before the date of the application".

In practice, the Department of Justice has operated a discretionary policy where a person can be absent for up to six weeks in the previous year and still successfully apply.

But a senior research fellow at UCD Dr Roderick Jones brought a legal challenge after he was refused citizenship after being out for Ireland for 100 days in the year before making his application.

The Australian national argued the minister did not make a reasonable allowance for temporary absences from the State for valid reasons, such as reasonable holidays.

But in a ruling which neither side in the case was expecting, the judge found that the minister came "to the right conclusion by the wrong route".

Mr Justice Barrett said the minister "has manifested very real humanity" by applying a discretionary period of absence of up to six weeks.

But the judge found the minister had "gone beyond what is legally permissible" under the act, which he found did not confer any discretionary powers. He said the ordinary meaning of the word "continuous" was "unbroken, uninterrupted, connected throughout in space and time".

Dr Jones's solicitor, Carol Sinnott, told the Irish Independent her client was considering appealing the judgment.

"In all likelihood it will be appealed or challenged, whether it is by him or somebody else," she said.

The solicitor said she believed the decision would be overturned by the Court of Appeal. "Effectively what the judgment means is that if the department wanted to, it could penalise a person for being out of the country for just one day," she said.

The ruling would have repercussions for many applicants, particularly those who have to travel outside the country for work, said Ms Sinnott.

Aoife Gillespie, a senior associate at Philip Lee Solicitors, which was not involved in the case, described the outcome as "absurd".

She said the decision would significantly impact on family life and disrupt business operations.

Irish Independent

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