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Ethnographic study of “culture of disbelief” at Taylor House

Ethnographic study of “culture of disbelief” at Taylor House

A fascinating study of power play and relationships inside and outside the hearing room has been published as a working paper by the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford: The culture of disbelief: an ethnographic approach to understanding an under-theorised concept in the UK asylum system by Jessica Anderson, Jeannine Hollaus, Annelisa Lindsay, Colin Williamson. I highly recommend taking a look. It provides that rare thing: a fresh, external view of the work of the immigration tribunal and the key actors, judges, representatives and appellants.

For example, just the few paragraphs on the role of bundles alone makes very interesting reading:

A well-organised bundle leads to ease in the presentation and examination of evidence. One judge told an appellant, ‘You have kept all these documents… That is good. A lot of people don’t do that’ (Case 6). In this case, the bundle facilitated the presentation of the appellant’s Article 8 claim, which would provide him the right to remain in the UK even though he might not meet criteria for asylum. In cases where the bundle was well-organised and utilised, we barely noticed it. A quick discussion of its size, contents or brief page number references reminded us of its subtle, facilitating impact on the procedures…

Poorly organised bundles in the hands of unprepared actors were a key cause of chaos and confusion in the courtroom. In such cases, the bundle took on a life of its own, transforming from a tool to an actor with the power to dictate the flow of procedures. Absorbed in the bundle, the judge and representatives ‘spoke to’ its pages rather than to each other. They passed it back and forth, flipped through it frantically, and lapsed into long stretches of silence studying it. More than once, a judge had to take a recess to allow the representatives time to organise the bundle. One judge said, ‘What I need is for you to decide what you want the judge to look at…If I put this case back, would you be able to sort these bundles?’ (Case 10)

An actor’s ability to use a bundle, regardless of its organisation, depends on the level of preparation. An underprepared representative leaves the HOPO’s dismissal of the evidence unchallenged, underlining the importance of asylum seekers’ access (or lack thereof) to high- quality legal counsel. In other moments, the HOPO fumbled over the bundle, pursuing irrelevant lines of questioning due to unfamiliarity with the case. We heard several complaints that the UK Home Office’s habit of forwarding bundles at short notice leaves HOPOs with little time to learn the facts.

An example of this dynamic is quoted in the body of the report:

A middle-aged Afghan man, a father of four, sits silently in front of the judge, nothing in front of him save a small plastic cup of water. The judge and solicitors shuffle through stacks of paperwork, discussing a missing DNA report. The judge pauses intermittently to deal with the details of upcoming cases. People bustle in and out of the room, letting the door click shut, dropping their bags, rustling their coats. When the proceedings begin and the appellant finally speaks, it is through an interpreter. The judge frequently interrupts, addressing him without looking up from her note taking. The Home Office representative repeats the same query three times; the appellant repeats the same answer three times, visibly more agitated with each. When the hearing closes, and the appellant reaches the door, he turns back, calling out to the judge. ‘Please, can I just say something? I plead for your help!’ Her attention is already focused on the next appellant, part of whose bundle is also missing (Case 13).

The whole paper is well worth a read and is only 20 pages long in total. It is hard to argue with the conclusion:

…we observed the interplay of actors, evidence and translation jointly obstructing this space and creating an overall atmosphere of disorganisation, confusion and chaos in many hearings. The combination of these elements creates a negative decision-making environment, which seems to heighten the risk that an otherwise legitimate asylum seeker might be denied refugee status. We thus argue that these elements of performance within the courtroom constitute the manifestation of a culture of disbelief.

Colin Yeo

Immigration and asylum barrister, blogger, writer and consultant at Garden Court Chambers in London and founder and editor of the Free Movement immigration law website.

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