Overstaying spouse of a qualifying partner: Court of Appeal sets out correct approach to Article 8 family life rights



There is nothing “brand new” about the legal tests that the Court of Appeal applied in GM (Sri Lanka) v The Secretary of State for the Home Department [2019] EWCA Civ 1630 (04 October 2019)


What is apparent however as tipping the balance in the Appellant’s favour as an overstaying spouse who had remained in the UK in breach of the Immigration Rules, is the fact that by the time her appeal came to be heard in the Court of Appeal, her husband and children had been granted settled status:

“In particular, the Secretary of State has now formally recognised that the husband and both children should be entitled to remain in the United Kingdom indefinitely. They have “settled” status. Their position is now no longer precarious in any practical or real sense….Three members of the family can stay permanently, but the mother cannot and on the analysis of the Respondent she must leave, and notwithstanding her decision to grant settled status to the husband and children they must leave with her if the family is to survive intact. On this analysis the family is placed in the most awful dilemma. If the father and children are to reap the benefits of their newly granted settled status, then they would have to do so without the wife and mother…………And in this appeal the Respondent opposes the Appellant’s arguments ………On the Respondent’s case, for the husband and children to enjoy the rights granted, great harm will therefore have to be imposed upon them all by the destruction and rupturing of a family life in this country. On the other hand, if the family is to be preserved as a unit then the father and the two children must leave the United Kingdom and thereby place in jeopardy their ILR and the settled status of three of the four family members……….No one questions that the best interests of the children lie in remaining with both parents. There is a deeply disjointed feel to this case. We are at a loss to understand why, in the light of the grant of ILR to the husband and children, the Respondent has not pragmatically agreed to revisit the position of the Appellant”.


In reference mainly to the following case law:

• Ali v SSHD [2016] UKSC 60

• Agyarko v SSHD [2017] UKSC 11

• KO (Nigeria) v SSHD [2018] UKSC 53

• Rhuppiah v SSHD [2018] UKSC 58


the Court of Appeal in GM(Sri Lanka) sought to apply the arising principles out of that caselaw in relation to:

• the proportionality test;

• the relative weight to be attached to various factors in the balancing and weighing exercise;

• the relationship between the Immigration Rule, the NIAA 2002 and Article 8;

• the meaning of “little weight” in sections 117B(4) and (5);

• the extent to which the “little weight” test applies to family rights;

• the relevance of a person’s immigration status in a family life assessment; and

• the relevance of “insurmountable obstacles” to return in the family life context


Background summary

The Appellant, a national of Sri Lanka, arrived in the United Kingdom on 18th January 2010 with entry clearance as a student. In or about January 2011, the Appellant met her husband. They married on 13th August 2012. The Appellant’s leave to remain expired on 30th May 2013. The Appellant’s husband who had been granted limited leave to remain until 2018 had been in the United Kingdom since 1998 and had not returned to Sri Lanka since that date. The couple had a child, born on 31st October 2012.


On 1st September 2014, the Appellant claimed asylum and also advanced an argument based upon the human rights claim. The decision of the Secretary was issued on 20th February 2015. It rejected both the asylum application and the human rights claim. The decision focused upon the Appellant’s asylum application and dealt secondarily with the claim under Article 8. The Secretary of State stated that the Appellant’s husband was not “settled” in the United Kingdom because he only had limited leave to remain until 5th February 2018 and the Appellant was not therefore entitled to apply for leave to remain as a parent. The Secretary of State considered exceptional circumstances and referred briefly to the fact that the husband had recently been granted discretionary leave to remain outside the Immigration Rules. The Secretary of State also focused upon the absence of insurmountable obstacles to return as a reason for rejecting exceptional circumstances.


An appeal against the decision was lodged with the FTT. By this time the Appellant had a second child with her husband. The decision of the First Tier Tribunal( FTT) Judge was promulgated on 25th August 2015. It rejected the appeal on all grounds. A subsequent appeal to the Upper Tribunal was rejected on 7th December 2015.


A Point of Principle: material change of circumstances and consideration of up- to -date evidence

The Court of Appeal noted that the judgment under appeal was made in 2015, however since then the Supreme Court had clarified a series of issues relating to the test to be applied under Article 8 in relation to the Immigration Rules and section 117B Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 (“the NIAA 2002” and “section 117B”). The FTT Judge in the present case did not have the benefit of these judgments.

It was noted that the position of the family had materially changed in the period elapsing between the FTT judgment and the appeal in the Court of Appeal. There had been a material change of circumstances brought about primarily by fresh decisions made by the Home Office which have fundamentally altered the legal position of the Appellant’s husband and children by conferring settled status upon them. On 3rd August 2018, the Secretary of State granted indefinite leave to remain (“ILR”) to the Appellant’s husband and to her two children. This was discretionary for reasons not covered by the Immigration Rules. It was explained to the Court of Appeal during the hearing that the grant was because the husband had been granted Discretionary Leave to Remain (“DLR”) as a “legacy” applicant. Upon the basis of the Secretary of State’s policy as set out in “Asylum Policy Instruction- Discretionary Leave” Version 7.0 (18th August 2015) the father was on a pathway to settled status, and when this occurred the children would also acquire settled status as dependents. This was clear from the “Transitional Arrangements” set out in Section 10 of the Policy Document.


The Court stated that they had to consider the extent to which the decision they had to take reflected the most up to date position. This was considered to raise a point of principle.

The Court concluded that that if an appellate court finds that a lower court or tribunal acted lawfully by reference to the evidence before it but that based upon the facts now known to the appeal court to uphold the decision would violate fundamental norms, then the appellate court must ensure that the decision it takes is compliant with the law, ie under section 6 Human Rights Act 1998 all public bodies, including courts, must apply the Act and thereby the ECHR.


The Court therefore sought to apply a two stage process: by addressing the impugned FTT decision upon the basis of the evidence that was before the Judge but, in the light of the Court’s conclusion, then to consider the up to date evidence in relation to what followed by way of relief, in other words, to defer consideration of the changed circumstances.

In order to give effect to the Court’s conclusion that the FTT erred, they set aside the Decision and relevant judgments, however decided not remit the matter back to the FTT.

The Court of Appeal directed that the Secretary of State consider the position of the Appellant afresh, in the light of the altered circumstances.


The Proportionality Test explained

The Court of Appeal made clear the six preliminary observations about the test to be applied:

• 26.First, the IR and section 117B must be construed to ensure consistency with Article 8. This accords with ordinary principles of legality whereby Parliament is assumed to intend to make legislation which is lawful ……..Were it otherwise then domestic legislation could become inconsistent with the HRA 1998 and the ECHR and be at risk of a declaration of incompatibility.

• 27.Second, national authorities have a margin of appreciation when setting the weighting to be applied to various factors in the proportionality assessment….That margin of appreciation is not unlimited but is nonetheless real and important (ibid). Immigration control is an intensely political matter and “within limits” it can accommodate different approaches adopted by different national authorities. A court must accord “considerable weight” to the policy of the Secretary of State at a “general level”……..This includes the policy weightings set out in Section 117B. To ensure consistency with the HRA 1998 and the ECHR, section 117B must, however, have injected into it a limited degree of flexibility so that the application of the statutory provisions would always lead to an end result consistent with Article 8: Rhuppiah (ibid) paragraphs [36] and [49].

• 28.Third, the test for an assessment outside the IR is whether a “fair balance” is struck between competing public and private interests. This is a proportionality test…………….In order to ensure that references in the IR and in policy to a case having to be “exceptional” before leave to remain can be granted, are consistent with Article 8, they must be construed as not imposing any incremental requirement over and above that arising out of the application of an Article 8 proportionality test, for instance that there be “some highly unusual” or “unique” factor or feature: Agyarko (ibid) paragraphs [56] and [60].

• 29.Fourth, the proportionality test is to be applied on the “circumstances of the individual case”: Agyarko (ibid) paragraphs [47] and [60]. The facts must be evaluated in a “real world” sense: EV (Philippines) v SSHD [2014] EWCA Civ 874 at paragraph [58] (“EV Philippines”).

• 30.Fifth, there is a requirement for proper evidence. Mere assertion by an applicant as to his/her personal circumstances and as to the evidence will not however necessarily be accepted as adequate: In Mudibo v SSHD [2017] EWCA Civ 1949 at paragraph [31] the applicant did not give oral evidence during the appeal hearing and relied upon assertions unsupported by documentary evidence which were neither self-evident nor necessarily logical in the context of other evidence. The FTT and the Court of Appeal rejected the evidence as mere “assertion”.

• 31.Sixth, the list of relevant factors to be considered in a proportionality assessment is “not closed”. There is in principle no limit to the factors which might, in a given case, be relevant to an evaluation under Article 8, which is a fact sensitive exercise. This obvious point was recognised by the Supreme Court in Ali (ibid) at paragraphs [115ff]] and by the Court of Appeal in TZ (Pakistan) and PG (India) v SSHD [2018] EWCA Civ 1109 (“TZ”) at paragraph [29]. Nonetheless, there is in practice a relatively well trodden list of factors which tend to arise in the cases. We address those of relevance to this appeal below. But others exist, identified in Strasbourg and domestic case law, such as the personal conduct of an applicant or family member in relation to immigration control eg. breach of immigration rules or criminal law, or public order considerations; the extent of social and economic ties to the UK; and the existence of prolonged delay in removing the applicant during which time the individual develops strong family and social ties: See generally Ali paragraph [28] citing with approval Jeunesse v The Netherlands (2014) 60 EHRR 17 (“Jeunesse”)


Court of Appeal’s considerations and conclusions

The Court noted that at the heart of the appeal was whether, at base, the approach taken by the FTT Judge to the evidence was lawful, in the light of guidance set out in the Supreme Court judgments.

It was the Court’s judgment that (not having had the benefit of the Supreme Court rulings to guide her) the Judge erred in the approach that she adopted to the issue relating to Article 8 family life rights.

The Court of Appeal considered the appeal under the following headings and reached its conclusions:

The nature of the rights that risk being relinquished if a person has to leave in order to retain a family life:

• It was argued on behalf of the Appellant that the FTT failed to address a relevant consideration, namely the nature of the rights that (non-Appellant) family members might have to relinquish in order to leave and reside with the Appellant in Sri Lanka. It was pointed out that if the husband and children returned to Sri Lanka then under the present law, they stood to lose their present DLR and any advantages, such as legacy rights and a pathway to settlement, that such rights conferred.

• The Court of Appeal concluded the underlying point was a practical one: the law is not concerned with form but with the practical substance of the actual immigration status of the person in issue.

• In the present case the FTT Judge did not analyse or weigh the nature and relevance of the legacy rights held by the Appellant and the children as part of the proportionality exercise. That omission reflected a failure to address a relevant consideration.


The application of section 117B(4) and (5) and the weight to be attached to family life created when immigration status was precarious:

• It was argued on behalf of the Appellant that taken as a whole and upon a fair reading the Judge wrongly applied the “little weight” provisions of section 117B(4) and (5) to the generality of the evidence relating to family life and in so doing made an error of law and also of assessment.

• The Court of Appeal held that the starting point is that neither 117B(4) nor (5) has any material relevance in the context of a family life case such as the present. In Rhuppiah the Court clarified that the “little weight” provision in section 117B(4) applied only to private life, or a relationship formed with a qualifying partner, established when the person was in the United Kingdom unlawfully. It did not therefore apply when family life was created during a precarious residence ie. a temporary, non-settled, but lawful, residence, which was the case in this appeal.

• The FTT Judge did not distinguish between the weight to be attributed to family life rights and private life interests in the assessment which followed; they were treated as one. The FTT seemed to have considered that the “little weight” provisions were relevant and to this extent it followed that the Judge wrongly discounted the weight to be attached to the family rights relied upon in the proportionality assessment.


The relevance of awareness from the outset that the persistence of family life would be precarious:

• Advanced on behalf of the Appellant was the subjective knowledge of the family as to the persistence of their family life in the United Kingdom.

• It was noted that in Rhuppiah (paragraph [28]) the Supreme Court articulated the point as follows: “…the question became whether family life was created at a time when the parties were aware that the immigration status of one of them was such that the persistence of family life within the host state would from the outset be precarious”.

• It was pointed out on behalf of the Appellant that this was a different test from the normal precariousness test as applied to an applicant’s own, personal, private life interest (as set out in section 117B(5)). This is because the awareness referred to by the Supreme Court concerns the position of all the relevant parties, and in a family life case would include the partner of an Appellant or applicant and any children capable of being relevant on the facts to such an awareness.

• The Court of Appeal concluded that it seemed at least arguable that as of the date when the Appellant married her husband, he was by then on a recognised pathway to settled status which could, realistically, in due course have affected his and her knowledge of the ability of their family life in the United Kingdom to persist. The Court made no definitive findings on this save to say that the omission of any recognition or analysis of the issue by the FTT Judge was potentially material.


The paramountcy of the interests of the children:

• It was argued on behalf of the Appellant that the FTT Judge erred in her assessment of the position of the children. She conlcuded that the father was able to move to Sri Lanka and therefore he should, and any refusal to do so was his “choice”. That being so she held that the children would not suffer because the family could remain together in Sri Lanka. But she failed to analyse the case upon the basis of the unchallenged evidence, which was that the husband had strong reasons, including his legacy DLR status, which meant that he would not leave the United Kingdom. It was pointed out, in this regard, that were the father and children to leave for Sri Lanka they risked losing their valuable DLR status with its possible pathway to settled status.

• It was argued that the position of the children had to be analysed in the context of an acceptance that the father would stay and, this being so, the family would be ruptured and fractured and the children would suffer either from separation from their mother (one child was only two months old at the time) or from their father when it was common ground that he was the bread winner and the children benefited from having two parents.

• The Court of Appeal concluded that the law supported this argument. The Judge did not analyse the position of the children from the correct perspective. She proceeded upon the basis that the husband would make a choice that he said that he would not take. She ignored the implications of the fact that she did not reject his evidence about remaining in the United Kingdom. She overlooked the risk that the family could be ruptured as a result of her decision.


The relevance of the existence of in/surmountable obstacle to return:

• It was argued that on a fair reading of the judgment the FTT applied, in a mechanistic manner, an ability or capability test. The Judge simply asked whether the husband could return. Having rejected his asylum arguments, the Judge rejected cursorily arguments about the husband having no social or economic links in Sri Lanka given the length of time that he had been away from the country without ever having returned, and his argument that he would not be able readily to find employment. The analysis was conclusionary, partial and ignored relevant matters, such as the rights that the husband (and children) would risk losing if they returned to Sri Lanka (the husband’s legacy DLR with its established pathway to settled status for the husband and children).

• It was the Court of Appeal’s judgment that the Judge did err. It was noted that it was made clear by the Supreme Court in Ali that even if it is practicable and feasible for a person to return that is not the end of the story – proportionality must also be considered which necessitates a careful analysis of the fair balance that exists between the State’s interest in immigration control and the individual’s interests. In this case the State had accorded the husband and the children DLR and they were (at the time of the FTT hearing) on a pathway to settled status and this being so, the State had no discernible, sensible, objection to the husband and children being in the United Kingdom. This was relevant to any assessment of the proportionality of compelling the father and children to move to Sri Lanka if family life was to be preserved.

• In this case the Judge did not say that she was considering the “reasonableness” of the husband leaving and instead focused upon whether he had the ability / capability to move to Sri Lanka. The point was made for the Appellant that if her husband and children were to follow her then they would lose their leave to remain and with it the chance (which of course did materialise) of settled status in the UK. There was no analysis of whether in such circumstances this was proportionate or reasonable for the husband or for the children.

• In the Court’s judgment the Judge wrongly applied a mechanistic ability or capability test. She did not apply a proportionality test and she failed to address herself to relevant factors.



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