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Jones v Minister for Justice & Equality

[2019] IECA 285 – Court of Appeal Judgment – 14th November 2019

On 14th November 2019, the Court of Appeal (Judge Whelan) delivered an important judgment in relation to naturalisation applications in Jones v Minister for Justice and Equality, setting aside the High Court’s judgment of 11th July 2019.

The appeal was predominantly concerned the interpretation of the words ‘continuous residence’ in Section 15 (1)(c) of the Irish Citizenship and Naturalisation Acts 1956 (As amended), which requires, as one of the conditions for naturalization, that an applicant must have had a period of one year’s continuous residence in the State immediately before the date of the application

In applying this condition, the Minister had developed a policy of allowing applicants a maximum period of 6 weeks outside the State during the year immediately prior to making the application. The High Court found that the Minister’s policy went “beyond what is legally permissible” because the legislation “does not confer any discretionary power on the Minister”. The High Court interpreted the word “continuous” literally, on the basis of its ordinary English-language meaning as defined in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, namely “unbroken, uninterrupted, connected through in space or time”.

The appellant argued in his appeal that the High Court Judge erred in law in his interpretation of the term “continuous residence”, in that such an interpretation was “unworkable, overly literal, unduly rigid and gives rise to an absurdity”, namely that an applicant could had been absent from the State for only one day would be ineligible.

The Court of Appeal agreed with the appellant, finding that a literal interpretation gave rise to a clear absurdity so as to engage section 5(1)(b) of the Interpretation Act 2005, allowing the Court to objectively assess the “plain intention” of the legislation. The Court of Appeal said that the words “continuous” and “residence” ought to be construed harmoniously. In the context of section 15 of the 1956 Act, the words “continuous residence” do not impose a requirement on an applicant that he or she is wholly precluded from leaving the jurisdiction at any time during the relevant year. The Court held that it is clear from the wording of the legislation that significant importance is attached to physical presence within the State during that relevant year.

The Court of Appeal further found that the Minister’s allowance of the 6-week absence is “sensible and within the terms of the legislation”. The criteria are “reasonable and balanced and have regard to societal norms regarding foreign travel”.

The result appears to be a return to the original position of the Minister in allowing a discretionary absence period of 6 weeks. Further absences require further explanation and may jeopardise an application. It remains to be seen whether the position will be clarified in legislation as previously suggested by the Minister for Justice, in light of the Court of Appeal judgment.

In any event, the Citizenship Division of the INIS appears to be issuing decisions again and Naturalisation Ceremonies have resumed.