By Lisa Matthews, Coordinator at Right to Remain
“They just guess”.
This is what my taxi driver said about the Home Office, as he took me to the immigration tribunal in Newport.
Some immigration tribunals are really easy to get, right in the centre of the city. Manchester’s is round the corner from Primark, on a busy shopping street. London’s Taylor House is in Islington, surrounded by theatres, museums, restaurants. Some, not so much. The tribunal in Bradford is a long way out east of the city centre and certainly felt like it when I visited. And Columbus House in Newport, well it’s not really “in” Newport.
I didn’t find out about the free minibus that goes from the train station in Newport until afterwards (from the taxi driver), so I got a taxi there. I was a bit nervous that the driver wouldn’t know where the Tribunal was, or we’d have to have that conversation about why I was going to the Tribunal anyway.
We did have a conversation about why I was going, but it wasn’t the conversation that I was dreading. My taxi driver was a refugee.
He knew the Tribunal well, having visited often as a witness or interpreter at asylum appeal hearings.
Having ascertained I didn’t work for the Home Office (“No, no, the other side” I hurriedly reassured him), our journey was then taken up with discussing some of the stupid ways the Home Office refuse people’s cases.
“They just guess”, he said. I felt this was a charitable take on the Home Office’s behaviour, but the taxi driver was a kind man.
“They say, you don’t know the diameter of the bullets in the guns? Then we don’t believe you were in the army …
Or in religious cases, you know, there was a pastor who said, I’ve been a pastor for 35 years and every time I read the Bible I find something new. Yet if there’s something you don’t know, they say you’re not a Christian.
It’s like, you’re from London, right … You ask a Londoner, do you know this street in West London? No? Then we don’t believe you’re a Londoner.”
This great analogy stayed with me throughout the day as I observed appeal hearings.
Watching the process of justice
Observing appeal hearings is a strange, uncomfortable business. It’s a different experience from when you’re involved in someone’s case, and it can feel awkward and intrusive.
Appeal hearings are open to the public unless a judge puts anonymity directions in place. We recommend that people who have a hearing coming up consider sitting in on someone else’s, so they get a sense of the layout of the room, the proceedings, and what the experience may be (though of course, every experience is different).
So sitting in on an appeal is allowed, normal and quite a common occurrence. And it’s important – we provide resources to help people navigate the asylum and immigration system, and run workshops on this as well, so we need to have an as up-to-date and close relationship to the legal process as possible. Not being a lawyer (anymore), and not being the person seeking asylum or other immigration status gives you a unique perspective. It gives you a bit of distance that means you can think about procedures, timings, dynamics and how to communicate this information to people who need it, in a way that’s difficult if you’re personally involved.
At least that’s what I keep trying to remind myself as I sit at the back of the hearing room, trying not to show that I’m crying as a softly-spoken, gentle man describes the worry he has about his elderly father with dementia, and the pain he feels every time he has to leave him in China.
As I watch as people reveal intimate histories, get confused and distraught and are, at times, humiliated by the process.
I was advised by someone who has done far more observing of appeals than me, that the most important thing is to be inconspicuous. It’s essential not to annoy the judge, or make the appellant any more nervous than they will already be. I’ve stuck to this great advice, but it’s hard and feels unnatural to sit, silent and still, when people are fighting for their lives, their families, their dignity. To listen, neutrally, when you hear things said that you know are incorrect and are going to damage the person’s case. To witness but not act when someone – maybe the Home Office Presenting Officer, sometimes even the judge – treats the appellant in a way that you find shocking and unacceptable.
Preparing for the unexpected
Sitting in appeal hearings hammered home to me just what a strange experience it all is.
Appeals are an absolutely vital part of the legal process, yet the right to appeal has been taken away from large numbers of people.
They are crucial, and often life-saving, in a context with such poor initial decision-making by the Home Office. Around 35-55% of appeals succeed (the figure is much higher for cases from certain countries, but much lower if you don’t have a lawyer representing you), showing just how often the Home Office gets it wrong.
“Your day in court”. This is sometimes used to explain the positive role of appeals – your chance to set the record straight, to speak to a judge and explain how the Home Office has got it wrong.
And yet, watching appeals, I’ve been struck by how little the proceedings can seem involve the appellant. If the person is represented by a lawyer, the lawyer may do far more of the talking. In some hearings, the appellant said little more than “Yes” or “No” and was given little chance to correct things they disagreed with.
Appeal hearings can feel rigid, and are governed by a strict process. Humanity, and the narrative that helps communicate that, can be sucked out of the process. This is exacerbated by the bizarre fact that most of the time, no-one is looking at the appellant at all. The judge, the Home Office Presenting Officer, their representative are all staring at laptops or their papers as they make furious notes of the proceedings.
It’s essential to prepare for your appeal hearing, but it can be very difficult to know what to expect. What mood will the judge be in? Will the Home Office send someone to attend? Will the hearing even take place, or will there be an adjournment because there isn’t an interpreter available, or the Home Office haven’t done what they need to do? What will my lawyer be like? Everyone is told to arrive for 10am – will I have my hearing straight away, or will I be waiting around for hours? Will I have to wait weeks to find out what the judge has decided, or will they decide on the spot?
This heterogeneity was explored in research by academics at the Universities of Exeter and Bristol:
We have observed judges that appear bored and unengaged, as well as those that are highly involved; judges that are friendly and kind, and others who are short-tempered and aggressive. There are judges that barely look at or speak to the appellant, and judges that take time to explain the process and assure the appellant of their independence. The size of the centres, turmoil of the waiting rooms, space for legal consultations, proximity to public transport, access to refreshments, attentiveness of clerks, nature of the Home Office presenting officers (HOPOs) and character of legal representatives also differ considerably. So, whilst on the surface the appeals are similar, held in near identical pastel blue rooms, following a formulaic structure, they are far from standardised.
The location of the hearing can itself make a difference. Taylor House in London is crowded, hums with nervous energy, and nobody has time to ask who you are or why you’re there. Columbus House in Newport is a modern building, light and airy, with very cheery friendly clerks who ask people if they want to take a peek at the hearing room so they know what to expect.
The variation is not just experiential, however. A 2017 Freedom of Information request revealed a huge disparity in success rates of appeal, depending of the location of the hearing.
Between 2013 and 2016, 47% of appeals at Taylor House in London succeeded, closely followed by 44% in Newport (this is a big improvement on 2010-2012 statistics, in which it was shown that while 42% of appeals at Taylor House succeeded, only 18% in Newport did). And yet, just 24% of appeals heard at the Tribunal succeeded, and even less (21%) succeeded at the Tribunal inside Yarl’s Wood detention centre.
A dismissed appeal isn’t necessarily the end of the legal process, but for many people it will be their main chance of establishing their legal right to stay in the UK.
Even though there are many unpredictable factors in an experience of an appeal hearing, it’s so so important to prepare. People – even those who are incredibly articulate in other areas of life – can struggle to present themselves and their case well under the pressure of hostile interrogation (from the Home Office and/or the judge) and the stress of the day.
Take a look at our Toolkit section on appeals to find out about actions you can take in advance of your hearing and on the day – for yourself, or for someone you’re supporting. It’s your story, it’s your case – be prepared, be informed, be ready.
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