Privy Council: 19 months too long for citizenship application

The judicial committee of the U.K. Privy Council has overturned an earlier decision of an eastern Caribbean court, ruling that a 19-month delay in registering an application for citizenship was too long and was “likely to be unlawful” when considering the applicant’s human rights, according to the judgment issued Aug. 2.

The case involves a Guyanese man who was seeking to become a citizen of Antigua and Barbuda by virtue of his marriage to a woman who had already obtained that status.

The central question in the court case, previously heard by the Court of Appeal of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court [Antigua and Barbuda], was whether the period of 19 months it took between the man’s application for citizenship and his subsequent interview regarding that application, fell within locally acceptable and legally permissible timelines.

In total, it took the man – Clive Oliveira – 27 months from the filing of his citizenship application until his grant of Antigua and Barbuda citizenship. However, the court’s main concern revolved around the length of time it took for his citizenship application to be registered and scheduled for interview – a period of 19 months.

“We … conclude that a period of one year, from application to registration … is in general the outside limit of a reasonable time and that delay beyond that time, absent special considerations, is likely to be unlawful because a fetter on the legitimate applicant’s right to be registered,” the court ruled.

In addition, the council committee noted it was unclear that “the full gamut” of the information required for Mr. Oliveira’s citizenship application was actually necessary.

“The attorney general has accepted that at least 15 items listed to be reviewed and investigated had no bearing on informing the state on the pertinent issue of Mr. Oliveira’s marriage status or the length of his marriage,” the judgment stated. “The [trial] judge himself commented that at least several of the issues which formed part of the process appeared to be irrelevant.”

The council sent the case back to the trial court in Antigua to assess damages owed to Mr. Oliveira, who was apparently left without the right to work while his application was being decided.

In arguing that case before the appeals court, Antiguan lawyers noted that a delay period of 19 months in hearing such a citizenship application was not unheard of and that the earliest available date was given to Mr. Oliveira, considering staffing and resources in the local government. However, the council committee noted that immigration employees could not point to a single case that had taken as long.

“Absence of resources is not, in general, an excuse for maladministration,” the court found. “The [19-month] delay … was itself a breach of Mr. Oliveira’s constitutional rights, let alone any further inevitable delay post-interview.”

According to the court records, Mr. Oliveira applied to be registered as a citizen of Antigua and Barbuda in April 2009. His appointment for interview of the application was given as Nov. 11, 2010. Subsequent approval and registration as a citizen was effected on July 18, 2011.

“Mr. Oliveira’s application for registration should have been concluded within 12 months from being made,” the judgment noted. “Mr. Oliveira’s claim should be remitted to the trial court in Antigua for it to assess the damages.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story previously identified the wrong court that issued the judgment. The Privy Council is Cayman’s ultimate court of appeal in most legal matters, although the European Court of Human Rights can also hear cases related to human rights.