Why failing to declare your nationality in court could land you in jail

Under new rules, defendants in criminal cases must declare their nationality, or risk going to priso

Under new rules, defendants in criminal cases must declare their nationality, or risk going to prison (stock image). Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

A new law requiring court defendants to declare their nationality has alarmed racial equality campaigners.

As of this week, failure to provide the information in criminal cases could result in jail.

The Ministry of Justice said it would allow authorities to consider deporting foreign national criminals as quickly as possible. But the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality (ISCRE) argued the requirement could damage trust in the impartiality of the system.

There was already an obligation to confirm a defendant’s name, address and date of birth, but courts must now verify nationality at the first hearing.

Notices distributed by HM Courts and Tribunals Service insisted the new rules would have ‘absolutely no bearing’ on how cases are dealt with.

In the case of not guilty pleas and adjournments, it said judges or magistrates dealing with the case at a later date would not be made aware of the nationality, unless it had a ‘direct bearing’.

ISCRE questioned why it was necessary for defendants to make the declaration at the outset, given the new requirement’s supposed intention to identify foreign offenders for possible deportation.

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Audrey Ludwig, the charity’s head of legal services, said: “Requiring defendants to reveal their nationality at the opening of the case could be prejudicial and damage the defendant’s trust in the impartiality of the criminal justice system.

“Why should people pleading not guilty or guilty to minor offences – where deportation is not an issue – have to declare their nationality? There is a real risk of subconscious racism in trials and sentencing.

“We note the evidence in [MP] David Lammy’s recent report – that racial bias is a serious problem at every level of our criminal justice system – and this alarming further step will do nothing to give confidence in the criminal justice system to local ethnic minority communities.”

A government spokesman said: “Where an individual is identified as a foreign national offender (FNO), this will allow the Home Office to begin consideration of deportation action as quickly as possible.

“We are absolutely committed to removing FNOs from the UK and continue to work closely with international governments to increase the number of prisoners deported.”