by Debora Singer MBE, Senior Policy Advisor at Asylum Aid
“I felt like I was on my own in there and everyone was against me.”
This is how a woman asylum seeker describes her asylum appeal. These words are taken from Asylum Aid’s new research, Through her eyes: enabling women’s best evidence in UK asylum appeals, published today. This original research, undertaken jointly with the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, focuses on how asylum appeals at the First-Tier Tribunal work for women. We sought the views of women asylum seekers with experience of the appeals process, legal representatives and judges, as well as analysing case files.
The appeals process has a profound impact on women’s lives. When women are refused asylum, as happens in 60% of cases in the UK, they have a right of appeal to the First-Tier Tribunal. If they are successful in overturning the Home Office’s initial decision, they will be able to stay in this country. If they are unsuccessful in this and any subsequent appeals, they risk destitution, detention and deportation.
Our first line of research focused on how women asylum seekers experience the appeals process and how it affects them. A picture emerged of women needing more communication, information, opportunities to speak and appropriate involvement in their case from both the legal representatives and the judges. They raised concerns about aggressive and intimidating cross-examination and having interpreters failing to interpret in full, particularly in relation to gender issues.
In considering our subsequent research question “what are the factors underpinning women’s asylum claims being successful on appeal?” we were helped by the fact that in a number of the cases analysed, women had undergone two appeals, being successful at the second. This enabled the researchers to compare how the same case was dealt with at two different appeals. We found that successful appeals were characterised by judges assessing all evidence, focusing on the core of the claim, accepting partial or late disclosure and accepting testimony without additional evidence. In addition, cases where legal representatives obtained medical and expert evidence and helped a woman to prepare for her appeal sufficiently were more likely to result in a positive credibility assessment and a successful appeal.
We were surprised to find a strong consensus between participants. The women’s description of good practice by judges, matched the judges’ description of their own good practice. Thus, some judges already demonstrate an open mind and attitude and consider the case in the round. Some are already providing a sympathetic questioning approach and are neither too credulous nor too sceptical. The fact that such practice already exists makes us optimistic. Providing opportunities for the good practice described by the judges to be shared among all judges has the potential to enhance the quality of the appeals process.
In addition, there were a number of practical adjustments that would ease the process for women asylum appellants at the Tribunal. Perhaps the most obvious is childcare provision. Currently women can be constrained in disclosing gender-based violence they have experienced by having to speak in front of their children either to their legal representative in the court waiting room or to the judge at the actual hearing. The Home Office is now providing childcare at most initial asylum interviews and a parallel provision at the Tribunal would prevent such difficulties.
Women felt strongly that they would benefit from more information about the asylum process including the lay-out of the court room and who sits where. Such information is already available to victims and witnesses attending criminal courts through Ministry of Justice videos. Similar information provision would make women feel less anxious, enabling them to give their best evidence at their appeal.
This research is the first to focus specifically on women asylum seekers going through the asylum process in the context of the legal process. At Asylum Aid, we are now focusing on influencing judges, legal representatives and the Tribunal to implement the report’s recommendations.
- The report, Through Her Eyes: enabling women’s best evidence at UK asylum appeals, was published on 13 November 2017. For the full report, visit this page.
- The project was funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the foundation.