Article 8 of the ECHR

Article 8 is a qualified right and any interference is permissible only so long as it is proportionate and justifiable. In the immigration context, Article 8 has assumed a distinctive role as it is frequently relied upon by foreign nationals who challenge their removal. These challenges have generated an enormous volume of case-law on the legal test to be applied as regards the balance to be struck between family life on the one hand and immigration policy on the other. But, to summarise, the key issue is this: should the courts accept that in most cases the balance between family life and immigration control has been laid down in the Immigration Rules – or should decision-makers themselves determine in each individual case where the proportionate balance lies?

In Huang, the Court of Appeal held that the Immigration Rules represented the appropriate balance between public policy and private right: individuals who did not qualify under the ordinary immigration rules would only succeed under Article 8 grounds if their case was truly exceptional. However, when the same case went to the House of Lords, it held that there was no test of exceptionality: the ultimate question is whether the refusal of leave to enter or remain, in circumstances where the life of the family cannot reasonably be expected to be enjoyed elsewhere, taking full account of all considerations weighing in favour of the refusal, prejudices the family life of the applicant in a manner sufficiently serious to amount to a breach of the fundamental right protected by article 8. There was, the House of Lords held, no reason to defer to the Immigration Rules which “are not the product of active debate in Parliament, where non-nationals seeking leave to enter or remain are not in any event represented.”

Following Huang, then, it was for the decision-maker – whether initially a caseworker at the UK Border Agency, an immigration judge on appeal, or a court judge by way of further appeal – to make her own assessment as to whether or not removal would breach an individual’s right to family and private life. This test has been accepted and applied since 2007. However, the loss of control here has evidently been too much for the Coalition Government to bear – especially when under acute media and political pressure to respond to public concern – real or otherwise – on immigration.

The rationale for the new rules, therefore, commences by way of critique. According to the Home Office, the Huang approach has resulted in unpredictable and inconsistent decision-making which are anathema to good administration (seasoned observers of the behaviour, action, and inaction of the UK Border Agency and its predecessors may relish the irony here: see, for instance, a special report of the Parliamentary Ombudsmen and multiple reports by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee on the UKBA’s handling of immigration applications). It has also meant that the courts do not defer to Parliament’s or the Government’s view of where the appropriate balance lies between family life and immigration control. Consequently, the solution – so the Government says – is to introduce new Immigration Rules to do two things: (i) to specify where the balance is to lie, that is, adopt a rules-based approach to proportionality; and (ii) to do so in a way which ensures that the new Rules have democratic legitimacy and should therefore only be subject to a light-touch judicial review.

How do the new Rules attempt to do this? By specifying the criteria to be applied in family life cases. For instance, in foreign national prisoner deportation cases, the new rules state that family or private life (including the best interests of any child, even though always a primary consideration) will not outweigh the public interest in seeing the person deported where they have received a custodial sentence of at least 4 years unless there are exceptional circumstances. This rule allows little scope for a Huang-style general balancing exercise; the main issue under the new rule is whether or not there are “exceptional circumstances”, ie a return to the position reached by the Court of Appeal in Huang.

For those foreign national prisoners with a custodial sentence of between one and four years, the new rules introduce different requirements. Deportation will be proportionate unless they have a genuine and subsisting relationship with a partner in the UK and they have lived in the UK with valid leave continuously for at least the last 15 years and there are insurmountable obstacles to family life with that partner continuing overseas; or they have a genuine and subsisting parental relationship with a British citizen child, or a foreign national child who has lived in the UK continuously for at least the last seven years immediately and it would be unreasonable to expect the child to leave the UK and there is no other family member who is able to care for the child in the UK. Alternatively, they might have lived continuously in the UK for at least the last 20 years and they have no ties (including social, cultural or family) with their home country; or they are under 25 years, have spent at least half of their life living continuously in the UK and have no ties or there are exceptional circumstances.

There are similarly complex and lengthy rules concerning the tests to be applied to other categories of person other than foreign national prisoners, such as cases concerning children and those individuals who seek to remain by virtue of their long residence in the UK. Putting the detailed rules to one side, thee general thrust is to limit and confine discretion and for the Government to give a clear policy steer to the courts as to how they should interpret Article 8. What the Government intends is for the focus of the courts to shift away from assessing the proportionality in each individual case to assessing the proportionality of the Rules themselves. As the rule embody the proportionality assessment at a general level, it is not necessary – the Home Office says – to re-determine it in every individual case.

If you are thinking about submitting an application to the Home Office based on Article 8 claim, you need to seek specialist legal advice. E-mail us your query to or call us on 0207 237 3388.