Clause 62 - Tribunal charging power in respect of wasted resources

Nationality and Borders Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:45 pm on 2nd November 2021.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I will also speak to clause 63, because the two clauses seem to be interconnected.

We think that these provisions are unnecessary and should be removed from the Bill. The Government’s proposals in both clauses are unnecessary. The Bill requires the tribunal procedure committee to give the tribunal the power to fine individuals exercising a right of audience or a right to conduct litigation, or an employee of such a person, for

“improper, unreasonable or negligent behaviour”.

This broad formulation could have a chilling effect on the willingness of solicitors to take on difficult cases, for fear of risking personal financial liability. That may also extend to Home Office presenting officers who would similarly be liable under the measure.

The immigration tribunals already have all the case management, costs and referral powers that they need to control their own procedure. Giving new powers to immigration tribunals without establishing a basis in evidence for them is not warranted. The clauses will therefore make it harder for lawyers acting for people with immigration cases to do their job in immigration tribunal hearings.

Immigration law practitioners fulfil a key role in enabling access to the courts and therefore access to justice, so that a person who is the subject of an immigration decision may make their case properly and seek vindication. Lawyers, both solicitors and barristers, play an important role in facilitating the smooth functioning of the asylum process, helping their clients to navigate the system and providing an additional layer of filtering against meritless cases.

All lawyers have a responsibility to uphold the rule of law and are strictly regulated by several bodies to ensure that they act to the highest professional standard. As a former lawyer myself, I am aware of the rigorous regulatory regime of the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which includes duties to the court and duties of integrity. Solicitors also act in the best interests of their client, and that is vital in ensuring effective access to justice. Those who provide services to people seeking asylum in England and Wales are also likely to be doing so on a legal aid basis, for which the Legal Aid Agency provides a further means of scrutiny and oversight.

In acting for people subject to immigration control, among other things, immigration lawyers work with clients who may lack funds and legal aid entitlements; whose documents may be incomplete, missing or badly translated; and whose statements as to their past experiences may be hard to secure, on account of the ill treatment they have suffered in their country of origin.

In addition, much is at stake in immigration proceedings. A person subject to immigration control who loses their case may be subject to expulsion from the UK and face a risk of harm in their country of origin. They may be separated from their family, or may lose the life they have built up in the UK over many years, leaving their lawyer in the position of making difficult but arguable points on their behalf. The proposals in clauses 62 and 63 of the Bill will only make that task harder.

Labour shares the concerns of the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association and the Law Society that immigration lawyers are being needlessly targeted by the new costs orders and charge orders, which are not necessary and do not apply in other areas of law. Immigration tribunal judges already have all they need by way of case management powers, costs powers and referral powers. Making the task of immigration lawyers harder prejudices access to justice, and has not been shown to be necessary by the evidence.

Photo of Craig Whittaker Craig Whittaker Assistant Whip, The Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that costs orders will only be made where representatives have been badly behaved and unreasonable without justification? In those circumstances, it is right that a representative should be required to pay wasted costs.

Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I will come on to that topic, but those powers already exist, and I do not think that further regulation of this type—forcing the tribunals committee to supply this information—is the correct way of going about this.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

We have just heard about the new special court, the new special tribunal and the new special advocate. We have new processes, new bureaucracy and new costs. Does my hon. Friend agree that this clause represents the veneer of the Home Office’s pretence to actually give a damn about value for money any more?

Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Shadow Minister (Home Office)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Throughout this Bill, some crumbs of legal aid have been provided in different circumstances, yet the Bill makes it difficult for lawyers to assist those people for whom legal aid is provided, and now they seem to be penalised for not being able to put forward the best case they can.

It is a well-established fact that access to justice includes equal protection under the law. Solicitors are fundamentally obliged to act in their clients’ best interests, which may involve adjourning a case due to a change in circumstances that they are not at liberty to disclose. That principle admits of no distinction between British nationals and foreign nationals, and those who are subject to UK law are entitled to its protection. In the context of UK immigration tribunal hearings, through which people subject to immigration control—non-citizens who cannot exercise democratic rights to shape the legislation to which they are subject—seek to vindicate their position against the state, that principle ought to warn against bearing down on them and their lawyers through an extra costs order and charging order regime that is inapplicable to British nationals in the wider courts and tribunals system.

Immigration tribunals already have the powers that they need to regulate their own procedures—as I have mentioned, they have case management powers, a costs jurisdiction and referral powers. Taking each in turn, they have extensive case management powers, as set out in rules 4 to 6 of the Tribunal Procedure (First-tier Tribunal) (Immigration and Asylum Chamber) Rules 2014. Those tribunals already have a costs jurisdiction that enables them to make wasted costs orders against lawyers through the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007:

“(4) In any proceedings mentioned in subsection (1), the relevant Tribunal may—

(a) disallow, or

(b) (as the case may be) order the legal or other representative concerned to meet, the whole of any wasted costs or such part of them as may be determined”.

Wasted costs are defined as

“any costs incurred by a party—

(a) as a result of any improper, unreasonable or negligent act or omission on the part of any legal or other representative or any employee of such a representative, or

(b) which, in the light of any such act or omission occurring after they were incurred, the relevant Tribunal considers it is unreasonable to expect that party to pay.”

That costs jurisdiction is given further effect by the rules of procedure set out in rule 9 of the 2014 rules. An order for wasted costs may be made

“where a person has acted unreasonably in bringing, defending or conducting proceedings. The Tribunal may make an order under this rule on an application or on its own initiative.”

In practice, tribunals have the power to regulate their own procedure to avoid its abuse. In the context of applications for judicial review in the High Court, it is recognised that the Court may refer a lawyer to their professional regulatory body, such as the Solicitors Regulation Authority, where their conduct warrants it, thus potentially leading to disciplinary proceedings. A legal representative may be asked to show why the conduct should not be considered for referral to the relevant body, or why they should not be admonished. An immigration tribunal might consider making such a referral in appropriate cases. Alternatively, it may decide that the conduct might not be so serious after all and restrain itself.

In clause 62, the Government seek to give immigration tribunals additional new powers, so that they may charge a participant an amount of money if it is considered that the participant

“has acted improperly, unreasonably or negligently, and

(b) as a result, the Tribunal’s resources have been wasted”.

The fine would be a separate matter from the costs incurred by a party, and it would be payable by the other party. The charge would be paid to the tribunal. In this context, participants who may be ordered to pay a charge in respect of immigration tribunal proceedings include

“(a) any person exercising a right of audience or right to conduct the proceedings on behalf of a party to proceedings,

(b) any employee of such a person, or

(c) where the Secretary of State is a party to proceedings and has not instructed a person mentioned in paragraph (a) to act on their behalf in the proceedings, the Secretary of State.

(4) A person may be found to have acted improperly, unreasonably or negligently…by reason of having failed to act in a particular way.”

However, we are not told what that “particular way” is.

Clause 62 provides that rules may be made and may include the “scales of amounts” to be charged, and it is wrong that no framework has been provided for the scales of amounts to be charged. As a rationale for this innovation, it is said that:

“High levels of poor practice around compliance with tribunal directions, which disrupts or prevents the proper preparation of an appeal, can lead to cases being adjourned at a late stage.”

No actual evidence is adduced to support that proposition or to demonstrate that existing case management powers, wasted costs powers and powers of referral are inadequate to deal with such matters.

Clause 62 seeks to amend the cost provisions in the 2007 Act in order to put greater emphasis on making an order on grounds of unreasonable behaviour. A tribunal may make an order in respect of costs in any proceedings if it considers that a party, or its legal or other representative, has acted unreasonably in bringing, defending or conducting the proceedings. This is a power to make a costs order against a party and/or their lawyer. Unlike in considering wasted costs, the behaviour identified is solely that which is unreasonable, not behaviour that is improper or negligent. In carving out unreasonable behaviour in this way, there is a risk that the high threshold that applies in the wasted costs jurisdiction is lowered, and that such orders are made where the ordinary difficulties of running an immigration case have impeded its progress. It is unclear why additional regulatory measures are thought to be needed, indicating that the proposal is unnecessary. The tribunal procedure rules already have provisions for wasted costs, and tribunals have the power to refer cases of improper behaviour to the regulator.

Clause 63 provides that:

“Tribunal Procedure Rules must prescribe conduct that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, is to be treated as—

(a) improper, unreasonable or negligent for the purposes of” a charge in respect of wasted resources. Where the prescribed conduct occurs, the person in question will be treated as having acted improperly, unreasonably or negligently unless they can show evidence to the contrary, so there is a rebuttal presumption in relation to this. Here too there is a risk that conduct that does not meet the test for being unreasonable allows a wasted costs order to sneak back in. It is also not clear how wasted resources will be defined or quantified, which may lead to satellite litigation challenging the fine itself or the amount imposed, further increasing the burdens on a system already under immense pressure. The rules make provisions to the effect that if the tribunal is satisfied that the conduct has taken place, it must consider whether to impose a charge or make a costs order, though it is not compelled to do so.

According to the Home Office, in immigration tribunals,

“A range of conduct on the part of legal and other representatives…in the way proceedings are conducted or pursued” is

“disrupting or preventing the proper preparation and progress of an appeal”,

but once again, no evidence is adduced to support that proposition, or to demonstrate that existing case management powers, wasted costs powers, and the power to refer are inadequate to deal with such matters.

Introducing further overlapping and potentially duplicative regulatory requirements may have the perverse impact of undermining the effectiveness of all relevant regimes, and increase complexity and bureaucracy. If solicitors are held personally liable for costs that arise for reasons outside their control, it could risk driving a wedge between them and their clients by creating a conflict of interest. The immigration tribunals already have all the case management cost and referral powers that they need to control their procedures. Adding new powers for immigration tribunals without establishing a basis for them in evidence is not necessary and is counterproductive. For the reasons I have outlined, we oppose clauses 62 and 63.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I echo what the shadow Minister said. This is all really political theatre—a move to get immigration lawyers. As a former immigration lawyer, I cannot let these clauses pass without comment. In my experience, immigration lawyers are a group of people who do an invaluable job, and not one that there is a queue of folk desperate to do. It is a difficult job. Most clients have no resources; legal aid budgets are far from easy; many clients can be communicated with only through interpreters, who are often hard to find; and these lawyers are dealing with facts, circumstances, documents and other evidence from jurisdictions thousands of miles away. The pressures can be enormous. These lawyers are acutely aware that in some cases, if they get things wrong, the client’s life, liberty or human rights are at serious risk.

This group have been egregiously maligned by the Home Secretary and the Home Office. Here, they are singled out again. It is wrong, reckless and counter- productive. It is wrong because, not for the first time, we are being asked to make law on the basis of anecdote, rather than detailed evidence. As has been said, the immigration tribunals have all the powers that they need in their case management, cost and referral powers. They do not need these new, distinct and very controversial powers. Given the difficult job that we recognise these lawyers do, and the significant pressures that they face, the very last thing we should do is create a threat of their having to pay money for taking on a case. As the shadow Minister said, the measures create the risk of a conflict of interest, because solicitors could find that doing the right thing for their client, or following their client’s instructions, puts them at risk of having to pay a financial penalty.

The measures are also wrong because immigration lawyers have been singled out. I would have thought alarm bells would be ringing in the Home Office at the idea of putting in place a procedure that will apply only to lawyers operating on behalf of non-nationals. I suspect this would see the Home Office in court again. I could go along to the immigration tribunal and do something that I might do without facing consequences in the social security tribunal, employment tribunal, tax tribunal or any other tribunal; but I would find that in the immigration tribunal, there were special provisions in place for me to pay some sort of financial penalty. That seems odd.

Speaking of the tax tribunal, the provisions are essentially a tax. We do not know how much the tax will be, because we are not given any indication at all of the nature of the penalties involved, but it is a tax, because it is not compensation to the other party for wasted costs—we already have provision for that. The money goes straight to the Exchequer. On the other side of the coin, if the Government representative is guilty of this misconduct, the Government pay themselves. They hand over money to the Exchequer. There is not equality of arms, by any stretch of the imagination.

As the shadow Minister said, the measure is also counterproductive, because when the conduct described in the new procedure rules occurs, we will end up with endless hearings, and solicitors will be repeatedly made to come to hearings, just to explain why the situation happened. That is a waste of time, and in absolutely nobody’s interests. I have no idea what the Home Office is playing at here, other than performing political theatre and again having a go at immigration lawyers. If hon. Members want an example of vexatious, unreasonable conduct, they should read these two clauses, because that is exactly what they are.

Photo of Craig Whittaker Craig Whittaker Assistant Whip, The Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury

I have already spoken on clause 62; let me comment on clause 63. I apologise, Ms McDonagh, but I did not realise we were taking them together.

Representatives and relevant participants in the legal process on both sides have a role in ensuring that appeals run smoothly so that justice can be served. However, there has been clear judicial concern about the behaviours of some legal representatives in immigration and asylum cases, and we are seeking to strengthen the tribunal’s ability to tackle such conduct. As has been mentioned, judges can already issue a wasted costs order when a legal representative acts in a negligent, improper or unreasonable way that causes legal costs to be wasted. The tribunal can also award costs if a party to the appeal has acted unreasonably in bringing, defending or conducting proceedings, which is called an unreasonable costs order.

Costs orders are rarely made and are generally considered only at the request of the other party. To encourage more use of those existing powers, clause 63 provides a duty on the tribunal procedure committee to introduce tribunal procedure rules in the immigration and asylum chamber, which will lead judges to more regularly consider making a wasted costs order or an unreasonable costs order, or the new tribunal costs order introduced by clause 62. That will ensure that circumstances and behaviours that have warranted the making of costs orders previously will more often give rise to judicial attention. Existing case law identifies the types of circumstances and behaviours that have led to costs orders being made or considered, and the principles applied by the courts. Those have included showing a complete disregard for procedural rules, for example through abusing court processes in relation to evidence or the timing of applications.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill

Division number 57 Nationality and Borders Bill — Clause 62 - Tribunal charging power in respect of wasted resources

Aye: 9 MPs

No: 7 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 7.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 62 ordered to stand part of the Bill.