No fees for Salma's family visitor visa appeal
Salma's family live in India and wanted to visit her in the UK for her wedding. Their visas were refused. Thanks to the success of a Citizens Advice campaign to abolish charges for family visa appeals, Salma was able to lodge an appeal and her family made it over in time for her wedding.
Uprecedented fee charges would make appeals prohibative
Until 1993, people from other countries wishing to visit relatives in the UK held a right of appeal should their application for a visa be refused. This right was abolished by the Conservative government under the Asylum & Immigration Appeals Act 1993. In opposition, the Labour Party promised to restore it, and a 1997 manifesto commitment to do so was implemented through the Immigration & Asylum Act 1999. Under the 1999 Act, appellants may opt for an adjudicator to consider the appeal on the papers only, or for a full oral hearing before an adjudicator.
In July 2000, the Government issued a consultation letter proposing appeal fees of £280 (paper-only appeal) and £580 (oral hearing) when the new right of appeal came into force on 2 October. The application of such fees is unprecedented in the social welfare tribunal system.
Our campaign for change
Citizens Advice immediately wrote to Ministers in the Home Office, the Lord Chancellor’s Department and the Foreign Office to protest against both the principle of charging, and the proposed level of the fees. We regarded the fees as racially discriminatory and thus wrong in principle, as well as creating a barrier to justice that could not be justified on any financial, administrative or other grounds. Our concerns were highlighted in a live debate on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, and in The Guardian. In the light of such protests, the Government reduced the fees to £150 (paper-only appeal) and £500 (oral hearing).
On 27 September 2000, the CAB Service’s AGM passed an emergency motion deploring “the decision to charge fees to those exercising their right of appeal” and resolving that Citizens Advice “continues to press the Government to reverse this decision”. The passing of the motion was reported on the front page of the Asian Times, and in the Caribbean Times. Citizens Advice again wrote to Ministers in the Home Office, the Lord Chancellor’s Department, and Foreign Office, urging that the fees be scrapped. We also produced briefings for MPs and peers in relation to short debates in both houses of Parliament.
Campaigning in partnership
Citizens Advice and other national organisations, such as the Immigration Advisory Service and the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, prepared parliamentary briefings on the issue and a group of Labour backbench MPs tabled an Early Day Motion calling on the Government to abolish the fees. On 2 November 2000, Lord Judd opened a debate in the House of Lords with a speech written by Citizens Advice. Several peers quoted extensively from our briefing, and not one spoke in support of the Government. However, in line with House of Lords protocol, the matter was not pressed to a vote.
On 20 November 2000, during a similar debate in the House of Commons, not one MP spoke in support of the Government, and at the conclusion of the debate 17 Labour MPs voted with the Liberal Democrats against the proposed fees.
During the debate in the House of Commons, the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw MP, defended the Government’s decision but agreed to conduct an internal review of the new appeal mechanism “within three months”. In January 2001 he announced the initial results of the review. The appeal fees were reduced further to £50 (paper-only appeal) and £125 (oral hearing) with immediate effect, and an inter-departmental Review Team was established to further examine the operation of the appeals mechanism. At the same time, the Lord Chancellor conceded that some would-be appellants had been “deterred from appealing because of the high fees”.
In June 2001, Citizens Advice and other organisations met with members of the Review Team to discuss continuing concerns about the impact of the fees and other aspects of the appeal mechanism. In early July 2001, Citizens Advice issued a further briefing to MPs, highlighting the fact that, despite the reduction in the fees, the number of appeals remained well below the Government’s forecasts. On 20 July 2001, the backbench Labour MP, George Mudie, made extensive reference to the briefing during a short debate in the House of Commons.
In December 2001, Citizens Advice published a short paper – Family visitor appeals: the first year – responding to a discussion paper issued by the inter-departmental Review Team in October. As well as noting the continuing low number of appeals, the paper set out Citizens Advice concerns in relation to the speed of the appeal process, and a huge disparity between the success rate at oral hearings and in appeals determined on the papers only.
On 7 February 2002, the Home Secretary, David Blunkett MP, stated in the House of Commons that he was “minded” to abolish the fees as “the review indicates that they cause not only administrative inconvenience, but considerable distress to those involved”. On 24 April, the Home Secretary announced that he was abolishing the fees because “they were not working”. New Regulations, setting the fee level at zero, came into force on 15 May 2002, and the Government subsequently tabled an amendment to the Nationality, Immigration & Asylum Bill, repealing the power to charge fees in family visitor appeals set out in the 1999 Act.