Limitations on domestic violence protections in the Immigration Rules justified, Court of Appeal holds

In the recently published case of R (SWP) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2023] EWCA Civ 439, the Court of Appeal has looked at the domestic violence concessions in the Immigration Rules.

What are the domestic violence concessions?
These were originally introduced in 1999 following a seven year campaign by Southall Black Sisters. Those who enter the UK as spouses of permanent residents or British citizens have “no recourse to public funds” and must be self-sufficient. They are granted five years leave to remain (two prior to 2012) after which they may apply for indefinite leave in their own right. The problem with this is that if a woman enters the UK only to find that her husband is an abuser, she faces an impossible choice: remain in the marriage for the requisite five years, or leave and face destitution and loss of immigration status. The 1999 concession allowed a victim of domestic abuse in these circumstances to apply for indefinite leave before the end of the spouse visa. The concession was replaced in 2002 with paragraph 289 of the Immigration Rules, and that in turn was replaced again in 2012 by the “DVILR” section of Appendix FM to the Immigration Rules. 

What this did not solve was the issue of destitution, particularly during the period where an applicant was preparing the application and while it was being considered, which could take some months. In 2012 the “Destitute Domestic Violence Concession” (DDVC”) was introduced whereby a victim of domestic abuse could apply for a three month bridging visa which would allow her access to public funds and the right to work while she prepared her application and applied for indefinite leave under DVILR. 

The current domestic violence rule can be found here and the crux of it is that 

The applicant must provide evidence that during the last period of limited leave as a partner of a British Citizen, a person present and settled in the UK, a person with refugee leave, or a person in the UK with limited leave under Appendix EU in accordance with paragraph GEN.1.3.(d), under paragraph D-ECP.1.1., DLTRP.1.1 or D-LTRP.1.2 of this Appendix, or during their only period of permission under Appendix Family Reunion (Protection), the applicant’s relationship with their partner broke down permanently as a result of domestic abuse.

What’s the issue?
The eagle eyed reader will have spotted that the rule is no longer restricted to partners of British citizens and those who are settled. The rule is now also available to partners of refugees and to partners of people in the UK with what is known as “pre settled status” – European nationals who did not gain fully settled status. 

The reason for extending it to partners of refugees is obvious. Partners of those with pre settled status are included because the Withdrawal Agreement required the UK to treat EU nationals applying under the scheme no differently to British nationals. 

However, partners of people on other visas are not included. This is not a new problem; the joint report from Southall Black Sisters and Eaves recommended in their 2013 review of the DVILR scheme one year on that it should be extended to those on other visas, commenting that “it is still a concern that this concession applies only to very specific group and relatively small group of women. All women in the UK, irrespective of their immigration status, should be entitled to equal access to safety and justice and to be able to access life-saving support and advocacy.”  

Why now? 
The Home Office line has always been – and continues to be – that the scheme is only available to those with a “legitimate expectation” of settling here. In written evidence before the Court of Appeal, the Home Office set it out in this way:

“The rationale for the terms of the DV Rule concession was (and is) that individuals who come to the UK as the spouse or dependant of a partner who is present and settled in the UK will have come to the UK in the knowledge that their UK based partner already has a right to live permanently in the UK. It is reasonable for them to expect to have their future and their permanent home with their partner in the UK, so from the outset they may well loosen or cut their ties with their country of origin. The domestic violence provisions concession means that someone who has come to the UK on this basis and who is the victim of domestic violence should not feel compelled to remain in the abusive relationship for the sake only of qualifying for indefinite leave. They should also not feel compelled to leave the UK when the reason for being here (to live here permanently with their British or settled partner) falls away through no fault of their own.”

“The rationale for the present policy is, as stated above, that those who have come to the UK as the spouse or partner of a person present and settled in the UK (or with refugee status or pre-settled status) have come to the UK in the reasonable expectation of being able to live permanently. They would have an expectation of permanent settlement but for the breakdown in the relationship as a consequence of domestic abuse. But those who have come as the partner of a person on a temporary work or study visa have no such legitimate expectation.”

However, the post-Brexit inclusion of EU nationals with pre-settled status, which is not permanent, meant that there was now a comparator. This was important, because it meant that the Appellant was now able to argue that she was being treated in a discriminatory way regarding her private and family life, contrary to Articles 14 and 8 of the Human Rights Act. To succeed in an Article 14 discrimination argument, a person must show that they are being treated differently by comparison to persons in an analogous or very similar situation. 

What was the case? 
SWP was an Indian national who moved to the UK with her husband when his company moved him to the UK to work. There was some confusion over exactly what type of visa it was, but the case proceeded on the basis that it was a Tier 2 (General) visa. People who come to the UK on a Tier 2 (General) visa do not have an expectation of settlement necessarily, but if they live in the UK with this type of visa for long enough they will be permitted to settle. 

Her husband was violent and abusive to her both in India and the UK. She finally managed to leave the relationship after he sexually assaulted her and tried to suffocate her. She fled with their son to a domestic violence refuge. With her visa about to expire, she tried to find a sponsor of her own to acquire a visa independent of her husband, but as her own profession of primary teacher is no longer on the shortage list, she was unable to find a sponsor. She therefore made an application for the DDVC. 

This was refused because she was not the partner of a person who was settled or British, but the partner of a person with a Tier 2 visa, and she was therefore not eligible. She applied for judicial review of the decision, which was rejected, and appealed to the Court of Appeal. 

What did the court decide?
The Home Office did not agree that the decision was discriminatory under Article 14 although they did agree that it was linked to Article 8 (private and family life). Article 14 can only be relied upon in relation to one of the other Articles; it is not a standalone right. 

The first court had already ruled that there was a sufficiently close analogy between the partner of a Tier 2 migrant and the partner of a person with pre-settled status. 

The crucial issue was therefore whether or not the difference in treatment was justified. 

The Court of Appeal decided that the difference in treatment was justified. The Home Office had a policy reason behind the differentiation and a “wide margin of discretion” is open to the government in choosing its policies on general measures of social strategy. Brexit was a “unique phenomenon” and provided “an objective and reasonable justification for the difference in treatment which now arises under the EUSS.” 

The appeal was therefore dismissed. 

What next?
It is possible that SWP may appeal to the Supreme Court, although even if she won it would be a pyrrhic victory since the Home Office very belatedly realised that her husband was not a Tier 2 (General) migrant on a route which might lead to settlement, but in fact was a Tier 2 (ICT) migrant on a route which very definitely does not. Understandably, she had not had access to his documents and did not know this herself. 

As things stand, there is therefore no DVILR route for those who are victims of domestic abuse but whose abusers are not settled. 

The Home Office approach is unfortunate, because it leaves migrant women very vulnerable to domestic abuse. While some will be able simply to leave their abuser and go back to their home country, this is not always possible for women who are from countries where divorce is a social taboo, or where there are children involved. Bleakly illustrative of this is SWP’s evidence that she could feel compelled to return to her abusive husband if her appeal failed, as she would not be able to afford to educate him in India by herself. There will be many women in similar situations weighing the merits of remaining with an abuser if they cannot remain in the UK if they leave him. Sadly, it seems this is not a situation the Home Office is willing to change. 

Edinburgh University, freedom of speech and the heckler’s veto

Edinburgh University has for a second time allowed protestors to prevent the screening of the documentary film “Adult Human Female.” It was initially to be screened in December 2022, but cancelled when demonstrators occupied the university buildings. The rescheduled showing was arranged for 26 April 2023, but prevented once more by a large group of protestors. 

Protestors blocked off the entrances and physically stopped anyone from getting inside. The event was once again cancelled.

The protestors of course regard this as a victory for the prevention of intolerance. A spokesman told the Times that 

“Their argument is that trans women are the problem and are men in disguise and that is a lie. It is tarring a whole community and demonising them. Free speech is fine for everybody but it does not extend to the intolerant and hateful.”

There is nothing in this quote to suggest that the spokesman had in fact watched the film. But what is more remarkable is the spokesman’s claim that free speech “does not extend to the intolerant or hateful.”  

As we have said before, the relevant provision is Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as given effect in the UK by the Human Rights Act 1998. Article 10 protects freedom of expression, but not unfettered freedom of expression – the old chestnut that there is no freedom to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. It is one of the most detailed Articles and reads as follows: 

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.
  1. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

In the first three paragraphs of his judgment in R (Miller) v College of Policing & CC Humberside [2020] EWHC 225 (Admin), Julian Knowles J summarised three famous citations on free speech: 

  1. In his unpublished introduction to Animal Farm (1945) George Orwell wrote: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” 
  2. In R v Central Independent Television plc [1994] Fam 192, 202-203, Hoffmann LJ said that: “… a freedom which is restricted to what judges think to be responsible or in the public interest is no freedom. Freedom means the right to publish things which government and judges, however well motivated, think should not be published. It means the right to say things which ‘right-thinking people’ regard as dangerous or irresponsible. This freedom is subject only to clearly defined exceptions laid down by common law or statute.”
  3. Also much quoted are the words of Sedley LJ in Redmond-Bate v Director of Public Prosecutions (1999) 7 BHRC 375, [20]:
    “Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative … Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having  … “

That of course does not mean that freedom of speech is unlimited. It may be limited where a legitimate aim is pursued, although as was said in R (Ngole) v University of Sheffield [2019] EWCA Civ 1127,

The existence of a broad legitimate aim is a mere threshold to the key decision in this case, as in almost all cases it must be. Such a legitimate aim must have limits. It cannot extend too far. In our view it cannot extend to preclude legitimate expression of views simply because many might disagree with those views: that would indeed legitimise what in the United States has been described as a “heckler’s veto”.  

This is particularly so when the speech in question, here the film Adult Human Female, is itself an expression of protected views. 

Proportionality is key to any decision to limit free speech. In Handyside v United Kingdom (1976) 1 EHRR 737 the European Court of Human Rights said at [49]:

“Freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of such a society, one of the basic conditions for its progress and for the development of every man. Subject to paragraph 2 of Article 10, it is applicable not only to ‘information’ or ‘ideas’ that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population. Such are the demands of that pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no ‘democratic society’. This means, amongst other things, that every ‘formality’, ‘condition’, ‘restriction’ or ‘penalty’ imposed in this sphere must be proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued.”

There are two issues here, in terms of freedom of expression (I am not considering here the law on academic freedom, but only human rights. For those wanting further reading around academic freedom, the law in England and Wales can be found here and Scottish law here.) 

The first is whether the film Adult Human Female really is as offensive as the protestors claim. That in my view is inconceivable – it discusses proposed changes to the law from the perspective of one of the affected groups, namely women. 

The second is that even if a sector of the population disagrees with it, feels personally affected or is offended by it, this intimidation is disproportionate and anti-democratic. A protest that does not prevent the event from taking place must be possible. 

It is noteworthy that one of the groups who are highlighted as anti-democratic in the film are UCU. A number of the academic interviewees express disbelief that a union for those whose lives are dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge should behave in such an anti-intellectual way. I do wonder whether UCU’s enthusiastic support for the protests in Edinburgh is to spare its own blushes should their students watch the film and find out how spineless their tutors are when faced with intellectual disagreement. 

Freedom of expression is valuable. If the protestors’ freedom of expression were similarly impaired by mob justice, they would be outraged. They should be careful what they wish for. 

Film Review: Adult Human Female

In the wake of Edinburgh University’s second cancellation of a proposed screening of the Adult Human Female screening, one of the Legal Feminists went to watch it.

Which is pretty easy, as it is online and on YouTube

Certified by the BBFC with a 15 rating, it features interviews with a number of women (and one man) who hold concerns over the conflict of rights between women and transgender people in light of legal and social developments of the last few years, and in particular over proposals (dropped in England and Wales, but still live in Scotland) to amend the Gender Recognition Act to make it possible to get a GRC without a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. The most notable of those is the proposal in England and Wales (now dropped) and in Scotland (still live) to allow a person to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate, and thereby a new legal sex, by simple self-definition.

The intention is to streamline the system for those who are put off by the bureaucracy involved in obtaining a Gender Recognition Certificate but who would otherwise plainly be entitled to one.

The difficulty is that this benevolence then includes people who do not have a Gender Recognition Certificate, not because they have never applied but would otherwise qualify, but because they very plainly would not qualify under the current provisions. The last ten years have taught us that it is almost impossible for service providers to distinguish between the two, not least because it has been impressed upon them that it is impolite or impermissible to ask. This may once have worked when the only males who would seek to access female services were a tiny, discrete group of transsexuals. That finely balanced compromise is displaced by self-definition, which extends to a much wider group.

The Adult Human Female film features interviews with women who argue – in the most moderate terms – that this creates a conflict of rights. 

I have to say, from the fuss that the film has created, I was rather hoping to see something considerably more seditious than a doctor saying that biological sex can affect medical treatment; a professor of criminology talking about statistics in prisons; and a barrister talking about the law. If I have a criticism of the film, they can only be that it is unexciting compared to the hype. That one interviewee referenced the Equalities [sic] Act (pet hate). And, perhaps, that Prof. Phoenix could have made it clearer at the outset of one segment that she was talking about trans prisoners, when she gave the statistical analysis, rather than the entire trans population in the community (although the context was rapidly made clear). 

The interviewees all take a left-wing approach to the topic. They look at the effect on women not individually but as a class. What is the effect on women as a class if single sex becomes mixed sex? In particular, on vulnerable women in prison, in refuge, in crisis. 

The film makers do not exclude the possibility that trans people may also need crisis support and emphasise that support services to trans people should be maintained. One issue which is raised – but not resolved – is that at the point of introduction of the GRA it was only ever imagined that those who would be encompassed in the category of legal (rather than biological) women were those who suffered severe gender dysphoria and who underwent surgery. Parliament simply did not envisage that this easily identifiable and discrete category would expand to include what Prof Phoenix described as a “gossamer” of cross-dressers, demi-girls, and anyone else who says they feel female – including inevitably men who do not have gender dysphoria. As Elizabeth I could have warned 2004’s legislature, it is not possible to make windows into men’s hearts. 

Does that original category, for whom the GRA was introduced, still need its  protection? Is it proportionate to jettison their protections because members of a much wider group are now seeking to claim those protections? The film does not explore this, no doubt because it is a film made by and about women, but it would be an interesting topic for a post screening discussion. 

What does come across strongly is criticism of those who seek to stifle any political discussion on the subject of evolving and fast-moving legal developments which affect us all. UCU come in for a well deserved hammering: their hyperbolic demonisation of critics is said to be in direct conflict with academic freedom. If academic sociologists can’t critique social issues, asks Dr Jane Clare Jones rhetorically, then “what are we for?” Quite. 

I combed through this film seeking out offence, given the protests. Not every viewer will agree with every interviewee – I certainly didn’t. But each of them gave me food for thought. I is risible to suggest that any one of them was “hateful” or that the film is so subversive as to be worthy of blocking. Any undergraduate who has academic ambition – particularly if it is towards law – should think very seriously about the difference between distaste and illegality. It is a topic which has been known to come up at pupillage interview. 

Is this really necessary, Minister?

Guest Blog by Cyclefree, a lawyer/investigator specialising in financial services and whistleblowing investigations.

Politicians are always inclined to fall for the “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” fallacy. The almost instant reaction to any problem in the public eye or if you want to look serious about an issue or to show that you really really care is to propose a new law. 

In recent days, Labour have proposed a law making spiking a criminal offence, even though there are existing laws which could be used. They plan to ban “conversion therapy”, though it is wholly unclear what this term means. The Tories are trying to pass a law against small boats in the Channel. The Bill of Rights (introduced under Raab, dropped by Truss, reintroduced by Raab again) is back on Alex Chalk’s desk. 

This last Bill is a classic example of a solution in search of a problem. It has been presented as a necessary reform. In reality, there have – since 2010 – been 4 reviews, all of which found no “compelling evidence of a problem” or “viable proposals for reform”. The Bill has been eviscerated by the joint Parliamentary Human Rights Committee’s report – here. Even a previous Tory Justice Minister (Robert Buckland) said the proposed Bill was pointless and a solution to a problem which no longer existed, if it ever did.

This last comment goes to the heart of why so many proposed new laws so often achieve little – and can do great harm.

When should a new law be introduced? And why? 

Those wanting a change should show:-

  1. The mischief they seek to address or the improvement that is needed. “What is the problem to which this is the solution? Be  precise in your answer” should be the first two questions asked of any politician proposing a new law. Too often they are never asked. Or, if asked, the answer is no more than “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore we must do this.”
  1. What are the real causes of that problem? If the causes are not legal ones, a legal solution is not going to be the answer. What will it improve and how? Too often, a new law is doing for the sake of doing. Or more often appearing to be doing.
  1. Can this issue be addressed by existing laws or other measures? We have enough of the bloody things on the statute book, after all.
  1. Is the problem sufficiently serious to warrant change? Partly this is a matter of priorities. But some problems are ones which cannot easily be solved or at all, are inherent in the tensions between conflicting interests. A bit of realism to counter the “There should be a law against it.” tendency in voters and politicians is needed.
  1. Will legal change resolve or alleviate the problem? Will it create other problems instead?
  1. Is what is proposed a proportionate way of resolving the problem. Not all problems can be resolved or only at an unacceptable cost.
  1. What are the consequences, especially the unintended ones? Do they harm the interests of others? If so, how badly? Can these be easily mitigated? If not, is it really worth going ahead or are there other measures which might work better?
  1. Is this consistent with other legislation or initiatives the government is enacting? This may be unduly hopeful but some attempt at consistency and joined up thinking would be welcome.
  1. Finally – and critically – how is this going to be implemented / enforced? If there are no or few resources to back up the new intentions, what – really – is the point? 

Is a pointless / ineffective law harmful?

Does it matter? Yes. Pointless law-making – the passing of Potemkin laws –  creates or reinforces cynicism about politics and a disregard for the rule of law, especially when it is seen as ineffective. Above all, it diverts attention and effort away from practical and effective problem-solving measures.

The desire to be seen to be doing something often seems to be the only important consideration. Consultation is put forward as a justification. But too often consultation starts from the assumption that something must be done and avoids a clear-sighted analysis of what the problem actually is and whether anything should be done. Or, more cynically, a cover for unclear / unpopular proposals (“We are going to consult on these proposals” = “We know they aren’t popular but we’re going to implement them anyway.”)

It’s as if what matters most is not effectiveness but the appearance of busyness. Ironically, this simply creates more work for lawyers and judges to try to sort out the mess thus created, more material for politicians to grumble about, more cynicism among voters, more proposals – and on it goes. It’s law-making as Escher might draw it.