Review of 2014
I managed to get away with only cooking one Christmas dinner this year, which alongside a proper break (other than writing this post) has reduced festive stress levels and helped provide a good end to the year. I’ve settled into Garden Court Chambers in 2014 and have much enjoyed working alongside the best immigration barristers and clerks in the business. On the home front, my youngest daughter was potty trained and learned to talk this year, both of which she took to rather well. Arguably too well in the case of the whole learning to talk thing. My eldest goes to school in 2015, so my wife and I are trying to enjoy having the children to ourselves as much as possible while it lasts.
On Free Movement
It was a big year for Free Movement. The WordPress auto annual report tells me that there were around 1.5 million page views in 2014. Google Analytics suggest the figure is over 1.6 million and provide a breakdown of how many visitors made how many visits and so on. There were apparently 484,000 unique visitors opening 881,000 sessions over the course of the year and the average number of pages viewed per session was 1.83. Average time spent per visit was 2 min 20 seconds.
The biggest single event of the year for the website was the launch of online training in May 2014. It has all gone well and feedback has been excellent. The course materials seem to be proving genuinely useful — I use them myself as a source of reference for drafting grounds and skeletons and try to keep them up to date — and there will be more on the way in the New Year. So far 556 courses have been undertaken and a total of 787 CPD awarded. My predictions in my annual report from 2013 have proven pretty accurate. I have enjoyed having the funding to go beyond mere updates into writing thematically. The blog format is fantastic for keeping up to date, but does not allow for a comprehensive treatment of a subject, unlike the training materials.
Surprise hits this year on Free Movement include the monthly podcasts, with each getting over 1,000 unique downloads, and my review of Paddington, which was on Free Movement alone was viewed over 92,000 times and was also republished in the New Statesman and Financial Times. Ebooks have also been a sort of hit, with over 500 sold, but they have proven to be a lot more work than I imagined. A new one on costs in immigration cases is just finished and has been a huge amount of work. As a rather depressing sign of the times, my blog posts and ebook on Surinder Singh have been very popular.
Advertising, about which I felt ambivalent in any event, has not at all taken off. Looking ahead, I am therefore intending to introduce a “leaky” paywall in the new year. Whether this is technically feasible remains to be seen. It would allow a generous number of “free” page views for members of the public researching their own situation or new visitors to the blog (maybe 20 per month, I’m not sure and may experiment) but is intended to encourage lawyers using the site on a very regular basis to contribute to the considerable costs of writing and maintaining Free Movement. The plan is for Free Movement Members to have full access as part of their membership. For others the cost of a paywall subscription would be set at less than full membership and be available on a monthly or annual plan.
I am also in the middle of a site redesign to launch shortly and you can see progress so far here. This will include greater use of short alert posts for new cases, reports, news links and similar, but displayed in a way that I hope will not overwhelm the main, more considered and in depth commentary and content. As part of the work the entire site was switched to secure https in December. Any feedback on all this very welcome.
The year 2014 will be indelibly stained by its association with the Immigration Act 2014. This appalling piece of legislation turns landlords into immigration officers and will undoubtedly worsen race relations in the United Kingdom. It was also a further year of legal aid cuts, with the permission stage for judicial review applications now undertaken at the lawyer’s own risk, and the Year Of False Hope for families separated by the cruel and discriminatory effects of the minimum income threshold in family immigration applications. The Court of Appeal ultimately upheld the Home Office position and the appeal to the Supreme Court has been very slow to get off the ground for reasons of funding.
We saw one Immigration Minister resign due to his failure to understand the very “papers, please” citizen denunciation immigration checking system he had just introduced for landlords in the Immigration Act 2014, but we also saw the Home Office take revenge with the arrest of Isabella Acevedo at her daughter’s wedding, followed by her detention at the notorious Yarl’s Wood female detention camp. Other than this my main memory of Mark Harper will be his suggestion that citizenship is a privilege not a right (a line lifted straight from Judge Dredd) and his bragging in a press release about seeing Syrian’s turned back from the UK border at Calais. On that subject, after politicians had trotted out the usual past tense platitudes about the UK having a ‘proud tradition’ of welcoming refugees, the UK accepted just 70 Syrians for resettlement. The Refugee Council have pointed out that they could fit on a bus.
Indeed, 2014 was a year in which the Home Office behaved badly. A theme emerged of incompetent handling of deportation and removal issues coupled with policy level cruelty towards normal families and entirely blameless individuals. Misbehaviour ranged from the trivial (but nonetheless insulting) to that of the utmost seriousness. The details emerged of the death of Alois Dvorzak in an immigration detention camp despite a Rule 35 medical recommendation that he be released. The specific bureaucrat responsible for such shocking but routine negligence has never been identified and it is unknown whether any disciplinary action was taken. Immigration Officers were found by a judge to be lying in a high profile trial around allegations of sham marriages and £125,000 was awarded to a family visitor after abusive behaviour by immigration officials. A series of well evidenced reports revealed a range of poor behaviours, from illegal raids on businesses and a truly shambolic removals process to prurient and idiotic questions asked of gay asylum seekers and disproportionate force and offensive language used in removals. The National Audit Office informed us that the number of deportations had declined since 2008 despite a tenfold increase in staffing levels (what on earth are they doing?) and that legal aid cuts had not reduced costs in the justice system, implying either total incompetence at the increasing misnamed Ministry of Justice, or else an ideological crusade. Families were treated appallingly by the Home Office, with several thousand put on hold while the Home Office pursued the answer it wanted from the Court of Appeal, only to be immediately refused once judgment was in.
Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights proved to be a rich vein for judges and lawyers in 2014. It was the single most popular training course in the Free Movement cannon. As if it were an itch no judge could resist scratching, seemingly every judge in the land has pronounced at some point on their view of the correct interpretation of the interrelationship between Article 8 and/or the Immigration Rules and Immigration Act 2014. There was a great deal more heat than light and we finish basically where we started, although the number of appeals generated by the absurd Home Office interpretation of Gulshan and the alacrity with which permission was so often granted on those prefabricated grounds will take some time to die down. Whilst on the subject of scarce judicial resources, the float lists seem to have been used as a way of costs shifting onto appellants and waiting times have increased to over 8 months at some hearing centres, even for family entry clearance cases.
It was a big year for the law on third country removals under the Dublin system, with important judgments from the UK Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights. Meanwhile, UKIP decided to scrap the entire Dublin returns system, although arguably that was because they haven’t a clue what they are talking about. Also in the Supreme Court we had important judgments on expert evidence and SPRAKAB and deportation and ILR and the Court of Appeal attempted to lay to rest the Legacy Legacy. The Court of Justice of the European Union decided important cases on dependency in family free movement situations, residence and protection from deportation, residence and access to welfare benefits and questioning of gay asylum seekers. Strasbourg gave judgment in a critically important case on Article 8 and family life that I still have not seen referenced in any domestic judgments.
Free Movement contributed to a handful of mainstream media articles in 2014, but the most important was on prurient questioning of a bisexual asylum seeker. The Observer later picked up the story and it led to a full review of Home Office practice in this area by the Chief Inspector, John Vine. On Mr Vine, his reports were always hard hitting and often controversial. After Theresa May seized control of his power to publish his reports and delayed several of them by many months, he resigned on the grounds that this interfered with his independence. I for one will miss him.
On a more positive note, the new procedure rules for the First-tier Tribunal Immigration and Asylum Chamber offer an almost level playing field for the first time and the Detained Fast Track was held to be unlawful in the High Court and Court of Appeal. The new President of the Upper Tribunal Immigration and Asylum Chamber, Mr Justice McCloskey, has shown real engagement with the world outside the Upper Tribunal, which is a welcome continuation of the policy of glasnost begun by his predecessor, Mr Justice Blake. The determinations of the new President are always thoughtful and interesting, which is more than can be said for many of the other reported cases that somehow emerge from the reporting committee. Presidential Perestroika and the new round of recruitment to the Upper Tribunal may assist in the much needed opening up of the tribunal to thinking which is not of its own rather isolated incubation.
Nevertheless, these faintest of silver linings cannot disguise that 2014 is the worst year in immigration law since perhaps 1971. The Act, the effect of legal aid cuts, the utter lack of compassion shown to Syrians and the sheer misery caused to the ever increasing number of families tortured by the harsh 2012 Immigration Rules are as irredeemable as they are unforgivable.