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The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I have resisted the temptation to speak on the subject throughout debates on the Bill. I reiterate that I am a lay member of the Immigration Appeal Tribunal. One factor not covered in the debate is the amount of stress on the current chairmen of the tribunals, let alone the adjudicators. They have political and public pressures on them to do the job and get it right. In many cases, they work in isolation on case after case, and write up very often late at night. On many occasions, I can see the exhaustion in my colleagues' faces. Occasionally, a legal member can go off the rails. If he is sitting on his own, that may not be picked up for quite a long time.
I find it difficult to support my job in the face of the fact that the Government do not like it. At the same time, Her Majesty's Government should consider the pressures that they are putting on these people. There is a backlog of thousands of cases, and the pressure is on to clear that backlog. It is very important to have even one lay member to support them, to discuss the case with them, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, made clear, to come to conclusions on the credibility of the applicant in the first place.
We must remember that this is the only jurisdiction in this country that has the power of invoking the death penaltythat is a very dramatic way of putting it. We can also impose on people an awful prison sentence. Some of the conditions in the countries that asylum seekers come from are appalling. One need only have someone who is very tired and not quite
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concentrating to make a little mistake. A lay member may just be able to prevent such a mistake from being made.
Lord Newton of Braintree: My Lords, I am encouraged by the presence of my distinguished predecessor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, to intervene briefly. I wish to quote from something that the Council on Tribunals, under the noble and learned Lord's chairmanship, said on an earlier proposal of this kind in its 1999 report. Page 11 states:
"We were troubled by the removal of the lay element from the Immigration Appeal Tribunal. Although we recognise that lay members may be unnecessary in cases concerned solely with issues of law, we believe that they have a valuable contribution to make when issues of credibility arise, particularly in asylum appeals".
As it happens, and as the noble and learned Lord will certainly remember, that proposal was changed during the passage of the Bill and the Lord Chancellor's power to appoint lay members to the Immigration Appeal Tribunal at that stage was preserved. This is not a point to which the Council on Tribunals has addressed quite the same attention on this occasion. Being more preoccupied with some of the other matters that I have touched on today, and given its less than full enthusiasm for the proposed single tier in this area, it has focused on other things.
In fairness to the Minister, we should acknowledge that the position is a little muddier in this area than has so far been acknowledged in this debate. The report published two or three years agoI have forgotten the exact dateby Sir Andrew Leggatt, Tribunals for Users, which underpins the Government's forthcoming proposals for reform in that area, pointed out that it was curious that lay members are in the second-tier tribunal and not in the first-tier tribunal. That is the opposite of what one would expect, and what we would urge, in most systems.
I realise that the world has changed, because Sir Andrew recommended a general two-tier approach to tribunals, which the Government have now rejected in this area. It was in that context that he made the following proposal, which I quote from paragraph 23 of his report:
"There should be a first tier immigration and asylum tribunal, within a separate Division, which should be the sole judge of issues of fact. Complex factual issues are a regular feature of immigration and asylum cases, ranging from the circumstances of an alleged marriage or the obligations within an extended family abroad to the political situation in a country from which asylum is sought. Many cases would not be suitable for hearing by a chairman, even legally qualified, sitting alone and expert members should be used when appropriate at this level. In setting the qualifications for appointment to the tribunal, and to sit in particular cases, we believe"
"that special care should be taken to ensure that those selected bring relevant experience and skills to the decisions to be taken, such as knowledge of conditions in particular countries concerned, or of refugees".
In the context in which Sir Andrew reported, he said that there should be a second-tier tribunal, which would consist of lawyers sitting alonethat is to say, the more normal model.
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I recognise that in one sense the world has moved on from the one in which Sir Andrew made those proposals. Nevertheless, the core of this is the argument that he sets out in the paragraph from which I have just quoted, which links very nicely with some of the remarks made in this debate about the nature of the decisions taken at what I will express in shorthand as the first-tier level. I have in mind the factors that need to be considered, the importance of credibility and the involvement of relevant expertsthat was the word he used; it was certainly non-lawyer participantsin making those judgments of fact.
It would be helpful if the Government could clarify why they have rejected this line of argument, which appears to have at least as much merit in the context of the single-tier proposals as in the context, which I acknowledge is different, of what Sir Andrew said.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, I wish to reiterate a point that my noble friend Lord Kingsland made: the possibility of having lay members and an ethnic minority member, or perhaps two, to make the process more credible in the eyes of the public and the asylum seeker concerned. Several noble Lords have pointed out that this is the one opportunity when the facts can be ascertained. It is an absolutely critical time for an asylum seeker. To extend the possible membership of the tribunal by making it possible to have a suitably experiencedas the Bill requiresethnic minority member is a very important point that we should not forget.
Lord Filkin: My Lords, I wish to place on the record that I am well aware of the value that lay members have brought in the past in these matters, and of the value that they bring to tribunals in a range of circumstances, not least employment tribunals, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, indicated. As the noble Lord, Lord Newton, signalled, we shall shortly publish our proposals for taking forward Sir Andrew Leggatt's proposals, which I hope will pick up the essence of his approach. However, that is for another time.
Amendments Nos. 54 to 56 have been grouped with Amendments Nos. 50C, 54A and 57A as they relate to the appointment of members of the asylum and immigration tribunal, and how the members are deployed within the tribunal. Amendments Nos. 54 to 56 when read together would mean that a person is eligible for appointment as a member of the tribunal if, in the Lord Chancellor's opinion, he or she had legal or other experience that made them suitable for appointment. The thrust of these amendments would be to retain the existing provisions in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 for the appointment of adjudicators with eligibility for judicial posts not based solely on legal qualification.
Amendment No. 54A is very clear that its purpose is to enable lay people to be appointed to the tribunal. The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, tabled a similar amendment in Committee, which was not debated then.
Amendment No. 57A is new and would require appeal hearings to be conducted by three member panels, unless directed by the president. Amendment No. 50C would
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ensure that determinations made by panels composed of lay members would still be subject to review in the High Court.
Let me seek to explain why we do not feel that these amendments are appropriate. After considerable thought, as a product of how we craft a new single-tier structure, we have taken the decision to ensure that the judiciary in the new asylum and immigration tribunal are appointed on the basis of qualified legal experience, or, in the opinion of the Lord Chancellor, they have legal experience which makes them suitable for appointment.
In setting out the reasons why we do not agree with the amendments, I will go back into history a little to explain how we have got to the current situation with the role of lay members in the appellate system.
The existing two-tier appeal system was introduced by the Immigration Act 1971. Lay members participated in panels formed as part of the Immigration Appeal Tribunal, as appeals to the IAT could be made on the grounds of errors both of law and of fact. However, the system of appeal introduced over 30 years ago by the Immigration Act 1971 bears little relationship to the complex system that we have today.
Compared to 1971, asylum and immigration appeals now raise many complicated legal issues that require close legal scrutiny and consideration. In these circumstances, a judge who has been appointed on the basis of legal experience is considered competent to conduct an appeal hearing on their own. However, it would be impossible to allow a lay member to conduct an appeal hearing on their own, and so this means they may be deployed only as part of a panel, as they are at present on the IAT.
However, even within the IAT it has become open to question whether lay members can claim to be an essential component to panel determinations on points of law, especially since the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, which restricted appeal to the IAT to points of law only. Lay members have made a valuable contribution to the IAT over the past 30 years or so, but these changes have diminished the role of lay members and placed them in an anomalous positiona position that the Government have addressed as part of their proposals for the new Asylum and Immigration Tribunal.
The majority of cases in the new tribunal will be heard by a single immigration judge. As adjudicators do now, they will need to consider points of law and of fact, and will therefore need to be legally qualified, legally experienced and competent to do this effectively. This rules out the deployment of lay members in this role, as their sole contribution to the decision-making process is restricted to matters of fact. It might be argued that lay members should be utilised in three-member panels, as is done now. However, in the new Asylum and Immigration Tribunal, the intention is that panels will usually be set up to hear only appeals that raise novel or complex points of law, or those that help to set authoritative case law for the tribunal. It goes without saying that the judicial bench hearing these appeals must be legally qualified.
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The requirement in Amendment No. 57A that nearly all appeal hearings must be by three-member panels would, of course, also have a detrimental impact on resources and the speed of the appeal process. First, it would be wasteful of tribunal resources, as in the existing system just over half of appeals stop at the adjudicator stage, and only a minority of cases are ever considered by a three-member panel in the IAT. There is no need to have a panel for every case. Secondly, if the new tribunal had three-member panels within the faster times we expect, it would have to recruit many more new members, which would have to be paid for. Thirdly, if the tribunal were to keep to its existing resources, the number of appeal hearings it would be able to do per month with three-member panels would fall dramatically. There are some 56 lay members, and they are part time, sitting on average 40 to 50 days per year. That would inevitably lead to backlogs and delays. Lastly, in respect of lay membership within tribunals, the Leggatt report concluded that,
While lay members have had a role in the existing system, the Government have considered the needs of the new tribunal very carefully. We have concluded that the case for retaining lay members is no longer sustainable. To retain their services purely on the basis of custom and practicewhich is what these amendments call forwould not be appropriate, courteous or right.
On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, about credibility, the future members of the IAT, adjudicators and legal members of the IAT are well able to assess credibility issues. They are trained and able to do so. The tribunal will be flexible; it will have both panels and single judges for cases. The tribunal is also well able to consider points of fact, that is, the purpose of the appeal when facts and law are considered together. If facts are not properly considered, that might amount to an error of law, and could be the subject of a review in the High Court.
In the new IAT, the judiciary are able to assess facts, as I have signalled, and if expert advice is required, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, no doubt this can be requested. The low percentage of cases that result in the adjudicator's determination being overturned points to that credibility.
On the point raised by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, we are seeking to improve the quality of the tribunal through a new judicial structure that would allow the monitoring of individual members of the AIT. If a member made an error of law in determination, again that could be subject to appeal.
I have touched on the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Newton, about Sir Andrew Leggatt's report. The central point is that he was describing what was appropriate for a two-tier system; we are discussing a single-tier system. I share the desire for diversity expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour. We are clear that that is subject to a merit test, as has been
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signalled previously. The way to address that is to look at how to ensure that there is a pool of suitable, qualified lawyers available for appointment if they meet the merit test to be considered as judges in the new AIT structure.
I hope that I have been able to explain why, with some sorrow, we feel that the contribution that lay members have made in the past has now come to an end as a consequence of the substantially different role that the AIT will perform.
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