Quite some time ago – as next year my wife and I are due to celebrate 40 years of marriage – one consequence of a British man marrying a non-British citizen was the possibility of the wife’s immediate registration as a British citizen. This was her legal right at the time.
My wife did not exercise her right to be registered as British until after the British Nationality Act of 1971 came into force. Under this law a non-British wife newly-married to a British man no longer possessed the right to immediate British citizenship.
That right had been removed by the Act, but it was not felt right to deprive those who had previously possessed it, even if they had not yet exercised it. So it was that my wife was registered as British even after the British Nationality Act had come into effect.
It was felt to be wrong to remove a privilege that the law had previously conferred on an individual, even though the law would no longer confer such a privilege de novo. This represented a principle that has been applied in many contexts.
One context was the change in voter requirements here in Cayman in 1988. Those upon whom the law had already conferred the right or privilege to be a voter retained that right, whether or not they met the requirements that the law now stipulated for new voters, and, indeed, whether or not they had already exercised their right.
It should be understood, in passing, that such a principle can be derived from the ethical sense of decency and rightness that runs deeper than modern human rights legal systems. It derives from the desire to treat people decently and not to change the rules (or the goalposts) of the game they are already playing. It derives from the recognition that individuals and families that make up a community, whatever their status in the community might be, are not merely the counters in a board-game that can be shifted around at the convenience of central authority.
It recognises that people’s own circumstances should be given respect and consideration, and not disregarded. The ancient principle of ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’, of course, comes to mind. The application of such a principle protects a person from being deprived lightly of some important element of his current social circumstances. My wife was protected by this principle when the British Nationality Act came into force, and similarly some of my family and I were protected by the same principle when the 1988 changes in Cayman voter qualifications came into effect.
It would only be the right and decent thing also for this principle to be applied to those currently affected by the Immigration Law, whose provisions were changed at the end of 2003.
In particular, the term limits that were defined at that time should be applied only de novo; that is to say to those who have come into the community under the new rules.
The Cayman Islands community will be wise to show consideration, equitability and a measure of generosity whenever possible, to all its members. It will be very unwise, on the other hand, to abandon honourable and longstanding principles of social ethics.
It is people who form a society, not insentient machines. To build a strong society we must exercise due care and restraint in the necessary process of changing laws and regulations.
Reverend Nicholas Sykes – Rector, The Church of England in the Cayman Islands