By-passing entry clearance requirements: Does Home Office Covid-19 Guidance permit visiting partners of British citizens to switch into the family life partner route?

Coronavirus (COVID-19): advice for UK visa applicants and temporary UK residents , https://www.gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-advice-for-uk-visa-applicants-and-temporary-uk-residents,  is stated to provides advice for visa customers and applicants in the UK, visa customers outside of the UK and British nationals overseas who need to apply for a passport affected by travel restrictions associated with coronavirus.

For those persons in the UK, the Advice/Guidance provides that if their  leave expires between 24 January 2020 and 31 July 2020, their visa will be extended to 31 July 2020  if  they cannot leave the UK because of travel restrictions or self-isolation related to coronavirus (COVID-19).

Although the Guidance also advises that affected persons are expected to take all reasonable steps to leave the UK before 31 July 2020 where it is possible to do so, relevantly, the current publication also states:

“If you’re applying to stay in the UK long-term

You can apply from the UK to switch to a long-term UK visa until 31 July 2020 if your leave expires between 24 January 2020 and 31 July 2020. This includes applications where you would usually need to apply for a visa from your home country.

You’ll need to meet the requirements of the route you are applying for and pay the UK application fee.

This includes those whose leave has already been extended to 31 July 2020.

You can apply online. The terms of your leave will remain the same until your application is decided”.

The Guidance in this regards is very brief and provides no clarification of the types of applicants or categories of the Rules in relation to which reliance can be placed so that leave to remain applications can be submitted.

The Guidance however is in writing, in English and published as within the public domain for all to see and read.  

Is it therefore possible to do exactly what it says to do on the tin – for example, follow what is said in that Guidance for a visiting spouse or unmarried partner of a British citizen resident in the UK and apply to switch from visitor status to the family life partner  route?

The prohibition on visitors applying for leave to remain under the family life route

Both the Immigration Rules Appendix FM, relevant main  Guidance and caselaw make it clear that a visitor cannot meet the requirements of the family Immigration Rules for leave to remain in the UK.  The immigration status requirements of the Rules for Partner applications contain this prohibition.

The Immigration Rules Appendix FM provide:

“Immigration status requirements

E-LTRP.2.1. The applicant must not be in the UK-

(a) as a visitor; or

(b) with valid leave granted for a period of 6 months or less, unless that leave is as a fiancé(e) or proposed civil partner, or was granted pending the outcome of family court or divorce proceedings

……………”

Home Office Guidance, Family life (as a partner or parent), private life and exceptional circumstances, Version 8.0,2 June 2020 currently provides:

Immigration status requirements

To meet the eligibility requirements for leave to remain, the applicant must not be in the UK:

• as a visitor

• with valid leave granted for a period of 6 months or less, unless that leave is as a fiancé, fiancée or a proposed civil partner, or was granted pending the outcome of family court or divorce proceedings

EX.1. does not apply when an applicant is in the UK with such leave

Where the applicant is in the UK as visiting friends or on holiday on a standard visit visa, it means that they have undertaken leave the UK before their visa expires. In all cases, visa or non-visa nationals have satisfied the entry clearance officer or immigration officer that they will do so, or have used eGates to enter the UK on presumption of compliance with the conditions of their stay. Those wishing to come to the UK to settle here as a partner or parent should apply for entry clearance under the family Immigration Rules. In view of that, a visitor cannot meet the requirements of the family Immigration Rules to remain in the UK.

Where an application is made by a visitor to remain, it is only where there are exceptional circumstances, that a person here as a visitor can remain on the basis of their family or private life on a 10-year route.

…………………….”

In seeking to cement the requirements of the Rules, the Upper Tribunal in  Younas (section 117B (6) (b); Chikwamba; Zambrano) Pakistan [2020] UKUT 129 (IAC) (24 March 2020) found as a fact that:

“61.The appellant travelled to the UK from the United Arab Emirates in May 2016 (whilst pregnant with the child of her British citizen partner) as a visitor. Their relationship was subsisting at the time. The appellant claims that her intention was to return to the United Arab Emirates and it is only because of difficulties with the pregnancy, and then with her child’s health, that she did not do so. However, she did not adduce any medical evidence to support her claim to have been unable to return to the United Arab Emirates either whilst pregnant or shortly after the child was born. Nor has she explained why she did not return to Dubai prior to her United Arab Emirates residency visa expiring in order to avoid a situation where her only option, other than to remain in the UK, would be to return to Pakistan, where she claims she would be without any support or accommodation. We have no doubt, and find as a fact, that the appellant entered the UK with the intention of giving birth and remaining with her partner permanently. We also find that she had this intention when she completed the 2016 application form in which she stated she only wished to remain in the UK for a further six months”.

Younas also found in relation to paragraph EX.1(b) of Appendix FM (insurmountable obstacles to family life with a partner continuing outside the UK):

“72. ……. It is not sufficient, in order to satisfy the requirements of Appendix FM, that a partner of a UK citizen is able to show that there would be “insurmountable obstacles” to the relationship continuing outside the UK. It is also necessary to satisfy certain of the eligibility requirements specified in paragraph E – LTRP, including that the applicant must not be in the UK as a visitor (E-LTRP.2.1). The appellant had leave as a visitor when she submitted the 2016 application and that leave continued – and continues – by operation of section 3C of the Immigration Act 1971. She therefore does not satisfy the Rules because she does not meet the eligibility immigration status requirement at E-LTRP.2.1”.

What also proved fatal to her appeal, is the Upper Tribunal’s conclusion in Younas that the public interest required her removal because:

“98. We have found that the appellant (a) entered the UK as a visitor even though her real intention was to remain in the UK with her partner; and (b) remained in the UK despite stating in the 2016 application that she would leave after 6 months. We agree with Mr Lindsay that, in the light of this immigration history, the public interest in the appellant’s removal from the UK is strong; and the strength of that public interest is not significantly diminished because she will be able to re-enter the UK. The integrity of, and the public’s confidence in, the UK’s immigration system is undermined if a person is able to circumvent it, as the appellant has attempted to do by entering the UK as a visitor with the intention of remaining permanently. Requiring the appellant, in these circumstances, to leave the UK in order to make a valid entry clearance application as a partner, far from being merely a disruptive formality, serves the important public interest of the maintenance of effective immigration controls”.

The Court of Appeal also concluded in TZ (Pakistan) and PG (India) v The Secretary of State for the Home Department [2018] EWCA Civ 1109:

“41.The FtT allowed PG’s appeal on the basis that she qualified for leave to remain under paragraph EX.1(b). That was a clear error of law because PG was a visitor. PG did not meet the requirements of E-LTRP.2.1. Her status was precarious. While in the UK as a visitor, with a visa of less than five months, she began a relationship with the man who became her husband only days after she arrived and they were married one month later. The only decision that was relevant is accordingly an article 8 consideration outside the Rules which was not undertaken by the FtT”.

On its face, if it is to be argued that  a visitor currently in the UK can rely on the published Home Office Covid-19 Guidance so as switch  and submit a leave to remain application under the family life Rules, this appears in direct contradiction to existing Rules, other  “usual” Guidance  and caselaw as set out above.

It is important to note however that the new Covid-19 Switching Guidance is a temporary measure, a concession,  in response to the current pandemic, likely intended to only allow such switching applications to be submitted within a period of defined duration. To that extent, where temporary  Guidance is brought expressly into existence by the Government to cater for a certain event or circumstances, then the current Covid-19 Guidance is not inconsistent with the Immigration Rules.

Covid- 19  switching Guidance effect  –  express waiver or concession

The new Guidance does not, for example, state that visitors can now  apply to switch into the family life partner route without the need to return abroad and apply for entry clearance.

As above, the Guidance is brief,  however it can be stated that its intent is clear enough- to permit applicants who would normally be required to apply for entry clearance to switch into long term routes without leaving the UK.  Without such a conclusion, then the switching advice is redundant, illusory,  it might as well not be there.  

In the absence of  any catergory application routes being set out, the Covid-19 Advice expressly disapplies or waives the requirement to return broad and apply for entry clearance. It should be capable of reliance  for example by visitors intending to submit a leave to remain application on the family life partner route.

The entry clearance application that a returning visitor with a qualifying partner would need to make abroad is by reference to the Immigration Rules, Appendix FM.

The family life route is for those seeking to enter or remain in the UK on the basis of their family life with a person who:

  • is a British Citizen
  • is settled in the UK, or
  • is in the UK with limited leave as a refugee or person granted humanitarian protection (and the applicant cannot seek leave to enter or remain in the UK as their family member under Part 11 of the Immigration Rules).

GEN.1.2 of Appendix FM provides that “partner” means:

  • the applicant’s spouse;
  • the applicant’s civil partner;
  • the applicant’s fiancé(e) or proposed civil partner; or
  • a person who has been living together with the applicant in a relationship akin to a marriage or civil partnership for at least two years prior to the date of application

Section EC-P.1.1. of Appendix FM provides the requirements to be met for entry clearance as a partner.

Section S-EC sets out the suitability requirements for an entry clearance application as a partner.

Section E-ECP.1.1. states that the eligibility requirements for entry clearance as a partner  requires all of the requirements in paragraphs E-ECP.2.1. to 4.2. to be met:

  • Relationship eligibility requirements
  • Financial eligibility requirements
  • English language eligibility requirement

Relevantly, as the Covid-19 Advice appears to disapply the requirement to return broad and apply for entry clearance, a visiting Partner should be able submit an application for  leave to remain as the partner of a qualifying  Sponsor, switching into the family life route.

Section R-LTRP.1.1. sets out the requirements to be met for limited leave to remain as a partner.

Section S-LTR.1.1. lists the suitability requirements for limited leave to remain as a partner.

Section E-LTRP.1.1. states that to qualify for limited leave to remain as a partner, all of the eligibility requirements of paragraphs E-LTRP.1.2. to 4.2. must be met:

  • Relationship eligibility requirements
  • Immigration status eligibility requirements***
  • Financial eligibility requirements
  • English language requirement

In relation to visitors, as regards the immigration status requirement, it is SectionE-LTRP.2.1.  that provides that an  applicant must not be in the UK as a visitor or with valid leave granted for a period of 6 months or less, unless that leave is as a fiancé(e) or proposed civil partner, or was granted pending the outcome of family court or divorce proceedings.

Visitors would normally be required to return abroad and submit an application for entry clearance under the relevant Rule, however as from 24 March 2020, following the Home Office published Covid -19 Guidance, it has been expressly clarified by the Home Office that:

  • until 31 July 2020, if a person’s leave expires between 24 January 2020 and 31 July 2020, such a person  can apply from within the UK to switch to a long-term UK visa and this includes applications where a person would usually need to apply for a visa from their home country.

The Guidance provides that if a person has already had their visa extended to 31 May 2020 ( by reference to earlier published Covid -19 Guidance) their visa will be extended automatically to 31 July 2020.

A visitor holding such extended leave, should on the basis of the Home Office Guidance be in a position to specifically rely on that advice( printing it out on the date of submission of the  online application)  and making representations including providing supportive evidence to show that the requirements of the relevant Immigration Rules are met – https://www.gov.uk/guidance/immigration-rules/immigration-rules-appendix-fm-se-family-members-specified-evidence

What would be the point of refusing such an application for  leave to remain on the basis the applicant should return abroad and apply for entry clearance where they  cannot leave the UK because of travel restrictions or self-isolation related to coronavirus (COVID-19)?

Moreover, it was only on 29 May 2020 that the Covid -19 Guidance clarified:

“Some UK Visa Application Centres (VACs) are resuming services, where local restrictions allow. For updates to the status of VACs in your country, contact:

Ongoing global restrictions mean some UKVI services will remain closed. Contact your local VAC to find out the latest status. Where services are resuming, existing customers will be contacted”.

On- line application form FLR(FM) is used by those applying  to extend their stay in the UK as the partner or dependent child of someone who is settled in the UK or who is a refugee or under humanitarian protection. In  the absence of any other newly published application form, apart from Form FLR(FP), this seems the most relevant and appropriate form for use on switching into the family life route.

To enable online submission of the application form, fees of £2052.20 to be paid online will  be collected per applicant, broken down currently as follows:

  • Home Office application fee- £1033.00
  • Immigration Health Surcharge- £1000.00
  • Biometric enrolment fee- £19.20

Section 3C leave whilst the leave to remain application is pending

If a visitor were to timely  and validly apply for leave to remain as a partner, relying on the Home Office Covid-19 Switching Advice, they would obtain the benefit of Section 3C leave pending a decision on the application or connected timely submitted appeal.

The Upper Tribunal in Younas concluded at paragraph 72: “The appellant had leave as a visitor when she submitted the 2016 application and that leave continued – and continues – by operation of section 3C of the Immigration Act 1971. She therefore does not satisfy the Rules because she does not meet the eligibility immigration status requirement at E-LTRP.2.1.”

The current Covid-19 Guidance set out above concludes by stating: “You can apply online. The terms of your leave will remain the same until your application is decided”.

If still viewed as holding visitor leave prior to the  expiry of the automatic extension until  31 July 2020, a visitor who therefore applies validly for leave to remain before that visitor visa expires, continues to hold the status of a visitor until a decision on the application is made by the Home Office. The applicant will not be viewed as an overstayer whilst the leave to remain application is under consideration in these circumstances.

5year or 10year route to settlement?

The route to settlement (5-year or 10-year) an applicant can qualify for, depends on whether all, some or no eligibility requirements are met.

All eligibility requirements must be met for a partner to qualify for entry clearance or leave to remain on the 5-year route.

Otherwise to qualify for entry clearance or leave to remain on a 10-year route:

• an applicant must meet all eligibility requirements, and rely on other sources of income to meet the financial eligibility requirement because there are exceptional circumstances in accordance with GEN.3.1. of Appendix FM

• an applicant must meet some and qualify for an exception to the other requirements because EX.1.(a) or (b) of Appendix FM applies

• an applicant meets some or no eligibility requirements but there are exceptional circumstances in accordance with paragraph GEN.3.2. of Appendix FM

The Home Office can be asked to consider the leave application on the basis that although the applicant is without the requisite entry clearance( which has been waived) and is a visitor  who has placed reliance upon  the Home Office Covid -19 Advice, having regard to the submitted representations and evidence:

  • Leave should be granted on the basis that all the eligibility requirements of the Immigration Rules for a partner have been met- leading to a grant on the 5year route to settlement; alternatively
  • Leave should be granted where all the eligibility requirements of the Immigration Rules for a partner  have not been met, leading to grant of leave on the 10year route to settlement.

Possible issues

The Secretary of State could consider a leave to remain application under the family life partner route from a person currently holding leave as a visitor relying on the Covid-19  Switching Guidance and grant leave to remain, as requested, as a partner.

Alternatively, the result of such an application could be a refusal of leave on the basis that the published Covid-19 Switching Advice does not have the effect sought by the applicant i.e that visitors can apply in-country on the family life route under Appendix FM  without returning abroad and applying for entry clearance. The Secretary of State could also add on that no exceptional circumstances have been identified justifying a grant of leave to remain outside the Rules on Article 8 grounds. 

A refusal decision should generate an in -country right of appeal to the Tribunal ( unless the claim is certified as clearly unfounded under Section 94 of the 2002 Act, providing for an out -of -country right of appeal).

A visitor in the UK whose leave has been extended to 31 July 2020, may have:

  • contemplated remaining in the UK beyond their leave for whatever reason( thereby remaining here illegally as an overstayer, which is a criminal offence)
  • intended to apply for leave to remain under Appendix FM whatever the outcome, whether or not the Covid -19 Advice caters for their position

It is such persons who could most likely consider taking advantage of the Home Office switching Guidance and apply timely for leave to remain as a partner, seeking to switch into the settlement route.

Where a visitor considers that the current Covid-19 switching Advice will not cover them for the purposes of a leave  to remain application as a partner under the Rules, then consideration should be given to leaving the UK by 31 July 2020(or by any further published extension date)  so as to make the relevant entry clearance application and avoid becoming an overstayer.

The potential to switch relying upon the Covid-19 Guidance not only impacts visitors wishing to apply for leave as Partners under the Rules  but also visitors  seeking to apply for leave to remain as a Parent under Appendix FM. Visiting parents of  the following:

  • a child who is a British Citizen or settled in the UK; or
  • a child that has lived in the UK continuously for at least the 7 years immediately preceding the date of application

are not eligible for leave to remain under Appendix FM because the immigrations status requirements apply to them as well:

Immigration status requirement

E-LTRPT.3.1. The applicant must not be in the UK-

(a) as a visitor; or

(b) with valid leave granted for a period of 6 months or less, unless that leave was granted pending the outcome of family court or divorce proceedings;

…………………”

The Home Office should be publishing fuller and detailed Guidance to cater specifically for  switching applications by those whose leave has been extended to 31 July 2020.  What category of applicants are affected and so able to apply to switch? Is there to be a specific type of application form for use? The current circumstances leave room for some degree  of speculation  and therefore  not conducive to the need to give certain and clear advice.  For now however, what the Covid-19 Guidance on switching translates to is a concession or temporary policy by the Government, allowing those individuals who would normally be required to leave the UK and apply for entry clearance from abroad,  to apply in – country to extend their leave in the UK on a long term route.  

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