In this important case, the House of Lords considered the compatibility with Article 12 ECHR (right to marry and found a family) of the scheme set up under section 19 Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants) Act 2004 requiring certain persons who are subject to immigration control to secure the permission of the Secretary of State before they marry.
Dismissing the Secretary of State’s appeal, the House of Lords held that the policy providing for the denial of permission to all those who are in the country without leave, or those whose grant of leave to enter or remain in the UK totalled less than 6 months, or those who did not have at least 3 months’ leave remaining, was incompatible with Article 12 ECHR. Their Lordships also held that the prescribed application fee of £295 was incompatible with Article 12.
Giving the leading judgment, Lord Bingham of Cornhill stated:
“29. Apart from its discriminatory features, which the Secretary of State has said she will remove, I do not think section 19, read alone, is legally objectionable. It is open to a member state, consistently with article 12, to seek to prevent marriages of convenience. There is nothing in the text of section 19 which authorises or requires the withholding of permission to marry in the case of any marriage which is not a marriage of convenience. Indeed, the section makes no reference to marriages of convenience or sham marriages and gives no hint of the grounds on which permission may be granted or withheld. Section 19 could be operated, consistently with its terms and with article 12, in a manner which required persons subject to immigration control to give notice of a proposed marriage, enabled an appropriate authority to investigate whether the proposed marriage would be one of convenience and provided for the withholding of permission only in cases where it appeared that the proposed marriage would be one of convenience.
30. Subject to one qualification, the 2005 Regulations are similarly, in my opinion, unobjectionable. They provide in some detail in Schedule 2 for the information to be given by an applicant for permission to marry, and considerable detail (more than is required in the Schedule) is clearly necessary if enquiry is to be made whether a proposed marriage will be one of convenience. My qualification relates to the prescribed fee. It is plain that a fee fixed at a level which a needy applicant cannot afford may impair the essence of the right to marry which is in issue. A fee of £295 (£590 for a couple both subject to immigration control) could be expected to have that effect
31. The Immigration Directorates’ Instructions, promulgated (it is understood) without express parliamentary sanction, provide for the denial of permission to marry (save on compassionate grounds, relatively rarely allowed in practice) to all those who are in the country without leave, or whose grant of leave to enter or remain in the UK on the occasion in question did not total more than 6 months, or who did not have at least 3 months remaining at the time of making the application for permission. The vice of the scheme is that none of these conditions, although of course relevant to immigration status, has any relevance to the genuineness of a proposed marriage, which is the only relevant criterion for deciding whether permission should be given to an applicant who is qualified under national law to enter into a valid marriage. It may be that persons falling within the categories specified in the Instructions are more likely to enter into a marriage of convenience than others, and that may be a very material consideration when the genuineness of a proposed marriage is investigated. But the section 19 scheme does not provide for or envisage any investigation at all, because (as has been explained in the evidence) such investigation is too expensive and administratively burdensome. Thus, subject to the discretionary compassionate exception, the scheme imposes a blanket prohibition on exercise of the right to marry by all in the specified categories, irrespective of whether their proposed marriages are marriages of convenience or whether they are not. This is a disproportionate interference with exercise of the right to marry
32. For reasons given in para 29 above I would set aside the declaration of incompatibility made in the courts below (save as to discrimination). Section 19(3)(b) of the 2004 Act should be read as meaning “has the written permission of the Secretary of State to marry in the United Kingdom, such permission not to be withheld in the case of a qualified applicant seeking to enter into a marriage which is not one of convenience and the application for, and grant of, such permission not to be subject to conditions which unreasonably inhibit exercise of the applicant’s right under article 12 of the European Convention”. Subject to that correction I would dismiss the appeal.”
Richard Drabble QC and Charles Banner appeared for the successful Interveners, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and the AIRE Centre (instructed by Dawson Cornwell), together with Eric Fripp of Mitre House Chambers.