This is a joint decision in respect of two cases that both address the question of when a parent of as of yet undetermined immigration status is entitled to a child benefit payment in respect of a child who either is an Irish citizen or holds refugee status.
Ms. Agha and Osagie each applied for child benefit while living in Direct Provision as they awaited the outcome of their respective requests for permission to remain in the State, The said applications were refused on the basis that absent a legal right to reside in the State they were not considered “habitually resident” for the purposes of s.220 of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005. Following the regularisation of their immigration status, further applications for child benefit were made by both applicants which the Department of Social Protection acceded to and backdated to the date they were granted permission to remain. They then sought to have child benefit further backdated to the date that the relevant child became a “qualified child” under s.219 of the 2005 Act. The Department refused to do so.
The applicants, on behalf of their children, challenged the decision not to backdate the child benefit on the basis that it breached the equality provisions under Article 40.1 of the Constitution and EU Law.
In the High Court, both cases were unsuccessful with White J. holding that the restricting of child benefit to parents who were habitually resident in the State was not unconstitutional or contrary to EU law because it applies equally to Irish citizens and non-Irish citizens and the equality guarantee in the Constitution does not require identical treatment for all persons without recognition of difference of circumstances. Although for the benefit of children, child benefit was paid to parents, and the distinction between people lawfully in the State and people without permission to be here was a valid one that the Oireachtas was entitled to make.
The decision at first instance was overturned in the Court of Appeal. Hogan J. found that the State had not provided objective justification for withholding child benefit in respect of an Irish citizen regardless of Ms. Osagie’s immigration status and that constitutional equality was breached in the refusal to backdate payments. Insofar Ms. Agha’s application related to a child who was granted refugee status, child benefit entitlements accrued from the date that the relevant child became entitled to reside in the State. There could be no basis for withholding child benefit in respect of a qualified child simply because the person applying for the benefit on the child’s behalf did not have a regularised immigration status. To do so would be to disproportionately deny parents a payment designed for the benefit of children.
The State was ultimately successful in its appeal before the Supreme Court. Dunne J. held that the Court of Appeal had fallen into error by focusing on the children rather than considering the positions of their respective parents as the claimants of child benefit. The Court held that there was no requirement in EU law to backdate child benefit payments in the manner claimed and that the equality provisions were not breached in circumstances where the habitual residency requirements applied to all prospective applicants equally.