For an applicant to the EU Settlement Scheme to receive either pre-settled or settled status, they will have to fulfil three key criteria. Firstly, they will have to prove that they are eligible to apply by evidencing their identity and nationality, and if necessary, their family relationship. Secondly, they will have to answer a few questions about criminality to see whether they are suitable for (pre)settled status. Finally, they will have to confirm and prove a period of continuous residence in the UK. This is the requirement that defines whether the applicant will be granted pre-settled or settled status, the latter obviously being a stronger and more permanent status for the applicant.
To obtain settled status, an applicant has to have been continuously residing in the UK for a five-year period. Applicants who are not currently living in the UK, but are applying based on their historic residency, will have to maintain their eligibility by proving that they have not been outside the UK for a continuous 5 year period immediately after the 5 year qualifying period of residence on which their application is based.
If a person has continuously resided for less than 5 years, they will be on course for pre-settled status. Once they obtain pre-settled status, they will need to continuously reside in the UK to maintain their status and further down the line, to reach the five-year requirement to qualify for settled status.
They can maintain their continuous residence by living in the UK for more than six months out of every twelve-month period. Applicants are permitted one period of absence of more than 6 months (but which does not exceed 12 months) for an important reason such as childbirth, serious illness, study, vocational training, overseas posting, or compulsory military service, without losing their pre-settled status. If the absence is longer, and it is not for an important reason, it will break continuous residence, and they will not be able to apply for settled status.
This might be the way the Home Office decides to deal with COVID-19 related absences – either it’s an important reason and the applicant “uses” their exception for it, or they return to the UK before 11pm on 31 December 2020 so they can re-start a new period of residence in the UK.
But this pre-existing rule is not enough, and does not cover every scenario where absences will affect those under the EUSS.
There are two key dates in relation to the EU Settlement application process: the eligibility deadline and the application deadline. The application deadline is 30 June 2021, but a person has until 31 December 2020 to become a person eligible to apply. This means that for EU citizens, residence in the UK must commence before 11pm on 31 December 2020 in order for them to qualify for status. Similarly, for most family members, the relationship must exist before 11pm on 31 December 2020 for the relationship to be considered under the EUSS.
As a consequence, absences can affect both EU citizens and family members in different ways. For example, imagine a Bulgarian national intends to come to live in the UK and would like to do so under the EUSS. They must move to and commence residence in the UK before 11pm on 31 December 2020 in order to get pre-settled status, which after five years of residence can then be “upgraded” to settled status. If they cannot move before 31 December 2020, then they will have a much more difficulty immigration process to get through in the new 2021 immigration system. This is quite a straightforward scenario – EU citizens know that their time to enjoy free movement and move to the UK is running low.
More pressing will be the ability to establish a family relationship before 11 pm on 31 December 2020. Imagine a French national who is intending to marry a Cameroon national. Imagine the couple have not known each other for very long, so they are not entitled to the status of “durable partners,” but they intend to get married in April 2020. Due to COVID-19, the marriage was delayed; it could not take place either in the UK or Cameroon due to the travel restrictions and social restrictions, most importantly because neither party to the marriage could travel. As a consequence, come the EUSS deadline for eligibility of 31 December 2020, the couple will be unable to establish their relationship existed (in the strict sense of the rules) before 11 pm on 31 December 2020, and as a consequence the Cameroon national will not be able to bring herself within the scope of EUSS status.
The couple will be locked out of the easier EUSS family permit route and will instead need to consider the strict rules for entry as a spouse, which are much more complicated. If the French national has previously obtained settled status under the EUSS, they will be able to sponsor their Cameroon partner under the spouse visa rules. If the French national merely has pre-settled status, however, this will be impossible. They will be separated from each other for a considerable period of time until the French national acquires settled status and then applies to bring their spouse in on a spouse visa.
These types of situations are not just typical for married couples. Unmarried (durable) partners must be in their relationship with their EEA partner before 31 December 2020 as well. To be eligible to apply for (pre-)settled status as a durable partner, the durable partnership must first be assessed as genuine by the Home Office. “Genuineness” is generally hard to prove. In the case of a durable relationship, the Home Office requires durable partners to apply for a document under the EEA Regulations to evidence their relationship. That document must be issued and received before the durable partner can then apply for status under the EUSS, meaning that if you’re an unmarried partner (i.e. durable partner) an application for that document must be made before 31 December 2020. If you’re a dependent relative (other than someone in the ascending lines of the EU citizens, spouse, or civil partner of the EU citizen), again, you must hold a relevant document for which an application must be made before 31 December 2020.
So, if COVID-19 prevents an applicant from being able to travel and/or apply for the necessary documentation in time, then they will be locked out of the EUSS. There are countless scenarios where this could go very wrong. For example, if an EEA national has died due to Covid-19, then their family members who are left behind should be able to apply for pre-settled or settled status. But under the current rules, those family members would only be eligible for status if they lived with the EEA national for at least one year immediately before they passed away. Setting aside the tragedy and trauma of losing a family member without even being able to say goodbye to them, what happens if the family member was unable to return to the UK in time due to travel restrictions, and they could not reach one year of living together? They will be locked out of the EUSS.
Or what if an applicant wants to retain their residence rights after divorcing their EEA partner? In order to do so, the marriage needs to have lasted for at least three years before starting the divorce proceedings, and both partners must have been living in the UK for at least one year before they apply. Again, if COVID-19 prevented the applicant from reaching that one year threshold before 31 December 2020, they will be locked out of the EUSS and it will not be possible for them to retain their rights.
This would simply be unfair. COVID-19 has had an impact on virtually every aspect of society and government. The immigration system is no different. The process of Brexit has been halted, slowed and changed by the virus as well. That is why the Brexit Civil Society Alliance wrote a letter to the Home Secretary asking for exemptions to the rules to deal with any breaks in continuous residency caused by COVID-19, so that no EU citizen is forced out of status through absolutely no fault of their own.
The Home Office replied stating that "continuity of residence by EEA and Swiss citizens applying to the scheme and who may have been stuck overseas as a result of COVID-19 is one of a number of issues the Home Office is working through. We are taking a pragmatic approach to ensure individuals are not penalised for issues arising from the COVID-19 pandemic."
Based on this response and our internal discussions with the Home Office, it doesn’t appear that COVID-19 will kill applications under the EU Settlement Scheme. In fact, the Home Office have confirmed verbally that absences due to Covid-19 will be considered as a serious reason for those who are on course to apply for or have received pre-settled status. This means that one absence of more than six months but not more than twelve for COVID-19 related reasons will not be considered to have broken continuous residence.
Although it is a step in the right direction, this is the only flexible approach the Home Office have referred to, and it fails to cover all of the other possible scenarios where absence will cause other problems.
Home Office policy on absences affecting those under the EUSS is yet to be determined because, they stated, COVID-19 related absences is an issue that affects all immigration categories and not just the EUSS, so they are trying to work out a holistic approach throughout the immigration system. It might be that the Home Office are taking this issue seriously, and it’s therefore taking time to put together a comprehensive, flexible and compassionate policy to deal with it. However, it might also be that part of it was a wait and see approach to see how serious of an issue absences might be for some visa categories.
But a wait and see approach will not suffice. As EU free movement law fully applies during the transition period, the issue of absence has to be assessed under Article 16(3) of the Free Movement Directive in the same way as for mobile EU citizens having their residence in an EU Member State. A longer absence due to the coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis should be treated as force majeure (unforeseeable circumstances that prevent someone from fulfilling a contract) and should not, therefore, be deemed to break continuous lawful residence.
In the meantime, any absences due to Covid-19 must be documented and evidenced, as the Home Office never takes an applicant’s word for truth. If your continuous residence is endangered due to COVID-19, you are going to need to have evidence that the enforced absence is linked to Covid-19 as well as that your return to the UK was completed as soon as it was safe and reasonably possible. The reality is that unless the Home Office decide to declare COVID-19 as an event of force majeure, the burden is going to be on applicants will need to put their case to the Home Office in order to have the best chance that discretion will be exercised in their favour.
If you have any questions regarding absences or the EU settlement scheme, please do not hesitate to contact us here or send us a question on WhatsApp.