Immigration tribunal fees hike may unlawfully discriminate
Fee increases will disproportionately affect BAME applicants, says president of the Law Society
The Law Society has criticised government plans to raise immigration and asylum tribunal fees, suggesting they could amount to unlawful discrimination.
In March the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) proposed a 500 per cent rise in court fees to cut the department's deficit and make the court system pay for itself. Justice minister Dominic Raab said the changes would raise an additional £37m a year.
However, the Law Society's president, Jonathan Smithers, has argued that the fee hike may unlawfully discriminate against those who cannot afford it and will, therefore, be unable to access justice.
'The impact of fee increases will be disproportionately felt by people with protected characteristics as the vast majority of Immigration Tribunal applicants are from Black, Asian, and minority ethnic backgrounds,' he said.
The MoJ outlined plans to ensure the most vulnerable are exempt from the fees, such as those who qualify for legal or asylum support, appealing a decision on citizenship, or children bringing appeals.
Consideration is being given to extend the list of exemptions to include those who have received a visa fee waiver from the Home Office. However, Smithers has explained that few applicants for waivers are successful.
'Only 16 per cent of victims of trafficking, a highly vulnerable group, were successful in their applications to have their tribunal fees waived in 2013-14,' he said. 'Exemptions should be extended to all asylum appeals and should apply to all appellants in detention.'
Lawyers and MPs have roundly criticised the proposals, which risk harming access to justice for the most vulnerable. Smithers added that the tribunal played a vital role in upholding the rule of law.
'Everyone should be able to access the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal, irrespective of their financial means,' he continued. 'The Immigration Tribunal's role is to resolve disputes between individuals and the state that obviously will affect an individual's life and future.
'It plays a vital role in ensuring that the rule of law is upheld. Access to justice for all through the tribunal must trump the "full cost recovery" imperative driving the MoJ's proposal.'
In March 2016 some visa categories, including family and spouse applications, saw a 25 per cent rise from £956 to £1,195. Chancery Lane argued that the MoJ could use the increase to visa fees to 'balance the books'.
'Rather than introducing measures that will hit the vulnerable the hardest, the MoJ should perhaps consider seeking to balance its books by using the profits of up to 440 per cent generated by visa applications to fund the tribunal,' added Smithers.
'The tribunal is an integral part of the process of ensuring the fairness in the visa system.'