Briefing (pt.2): our submission to the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration by Chris Benn and Charlotte Rubin

The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) is currently putting together a review of the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) to present to the government. As the official lawyers contracted by the European Union (EU) to provide legal and policy advice to the European Delegation in the United Kingdom on the EUSS, Brexit and EU Citizens' Rights, we made a submission to on the progress of the Scheme.

Applying to the EUSS is mandatory for all EU citizens and other EEA/Swiss nationals who wish to continue living in the UK lawfully after the transition period. EU citizens have until 30 June 2021 to apply under the Scheme. If they do not apply in time, they will be unlawful residents in the UK. The Scheme’s strong suits and shortcomings have been discussed many a time. Our data and experience, collected since we started working with the EU delegation in 2018, enables us to map certain problematic patterns within the scheme and the way it operates. In last week’s briefing, we discussed the EUSS process up until the stage of applying to the Scheme, with a focus and communication and outreach that has been done to reach vulnerable EU citizens who need to apply to the Scheme. This week, we look at the next stage, namely what happens after submission of applications.

The government has hailed the EU Settlement Scheme as a great success, with 98% of applicants under the Scheme being granted status, and relatively few applications being refused. These numbers do speak for themselves to some extent. In recent months, however, we have seen a rise in refused and void applications.

Applications can be refused for different reasons, the main ones being that the applicant is not eligible for status under the Scheme, or that they are not suitable for status. The last set of EUSS statistics which included a breakdown of eligibility versus suitability refusals were issued in May 2020. These statistics stated of the 2,300 refusal decisions, 1% are refused on suitability with the remaining 99% refused on eligibility.

This may seem like a small percentage of suitability refusals. However, it only reflects suitability refusals where a valid application has been made to the EUSS. The most vulnerable applicants who are at risk of having their application refused based on suitability grounds are prisoners and immigration detainees. These individuals are severely restricted in their ability to make an application to the EUSS, and lack the adequate legal aid to do so. As a consequence, the likelihood is that they will receive their deportation decision before they are able to lodge an EUSS application. They are then stuck in a vicious circle: the deportation decision prevents them from being granted EUSS status, but they did not know they had to apply before they received the deportation decision.

The effect of this is the same as a refusing an EUSS application on suitability grounds. The Home Office guidance on ‘EEA decisions taken on grounds of public policy’ sets a low bar for the issuing of a deportation decision, meaning that many of these EEA nationals only have to reach that threshold in order to be liable for deportation. Arguably, this is inconsistent with the approach required by the Withdrawal Agreement, which grants EEA citizens more extensive protections. In other words, these EEA citizens are being refused the rights and benefits of their respective Withdrawal Agreements. As things stand now, these cases are not being clearly reported in the statistics. As a consequence, it is difficult to assess whether or not there is a systemic denial of Withdrawal Agreement rights, but the possibility is definitely there.

Regarding refusals on eligibility grounds, which forms the other 99% of refusals, the narrative presented by the Home Office is that caseworkers will only refuse an application if they have made numerous efforts to contact applicants to seek additional information. It is only when these request for additional information are not responded to that the Home Office is ‘forced’ to issue an eligibility refusal. In reality, this presentation is not consistent where the application can be refused because the applicant is applying as either a durable partner, or a dependent relative. Family members and dependent relatives have to send a “mandatory document” proving their relationship with the EEA national as part of the application process. If they fail to do so, these cases are refused quickly once the Home Office has confirmed that the applicant did not submit a relevant document, without necessarily contacting the applicant to request for additional information. In fact, applicants whose application was refused on those grounds of failing to provide a “mandatory document” confirmed that the Home Office made no attempt to contact them to request the relevant document and instead, refused them after a significant delay only informing them about the requirement to hold a relevant document in the refusal decision.

Following from that, it is essential that refusal decisions based on the fact that the applicant has not obtained a relevant document under the EEA Regulations prior to applying into the EUSS are issued before the deadline 31 December 2020. This is necessary because any refusal decision received after this date will prevent the family member from applying for an EEA Regulations relevant document which is mandatory to then succeeding under the EUSS. In essence, if they receive their refusal late, these applicants will be locked out of being granted EUSS status irrespective of whether or not their family situation meets the conditions of the Withdrawal Agreement. This would be denial of status on a procedural basis not on a substantive basis, and should be avoided at all costs.

In addition to a quick processing of these cases, Seraphus recommended that EUSS applicants who require EEA Regulations relevant documents should be entitled to apply for these up to 30 June 2021 based on a relationship that existed by 31 December 2020. This would be consistent with the intentions of the Withdrawal Agreement to ensure that family relationships in existence by 31 December 2020 are protected. By comparison, this approach is no different from requiring EUSS applicants to be resident in the UK before the end of the transition period and then having an additional six months to make the EUSS applications evidencing their eligibility.

When the Scheme was initially rolled out in 2018, there was no process in place to appeal a refused decision, meaning people whose application was refused had no way of challenging this decision. After complaints and campaigns to promote access to justice and a fair trial, the Home Office introduced the right of appeal for the EUSS in January 2020, but only for applications made on or after 31 January 2020. As a consequence, applicants who applied before 31 January 2020 are still unable to appeal their refusals. There does not seem to be any specific logic in denying an appeal right to applicants based on what is essential an arbitrary date for the purpose of the EUSS. Many of the cases refused before the cut-off date were part of the more complex share of applications, and were pending for a significant period of time (6 to 12 months), prior to refusal. Due to the lack of appeal routes, these individuals are forced to re-apply under the Scheme and again, wait for months before finding out the results.

As for invalid applications, there seems to be a communication breakdown between the Home Office and the applicants. Some EEA nationals come to outreach events and ask questions thinking they have valid applications pending but on examination, do not have any type of application outstanding. Applicants who do not have a certificate of application and are not aware of the necessity of this certificate have misunderstood something vital about the EUSS process which will ultimately lead to their application being invalidated. The reasons for this type of misunderstanding are diverse – for example, where applicants think that by scanning their passport or national identity card to the Home Office, they have made an application for status to remain in the UK. They do not realise that there is an additional online application form which must be submitted in order to complete the application process.

After the EUSS deadline has passed, there will be significant numbers of eligible citizens who believed that they had successfully made in EUSS application but instead have had their applications invalidated without their knowledge or understanding of what this meant. It is unclear whether such an excuse will be accepted by the Home Office as “good reason” for a late application, if the applicant in question realise that their initial application was not completed and then wants to reapply after the deadline.

To sum up, applicants and front-line workers need clarity on what reasons will constitute of good reason to apply to the EUSS after the deadline, as it looks like many individuals with previous refusals or with incomplete applications will end up having to apply after the deadline, and it is unknown whether those applications will be accepted. Refusals under the EUSS – whether on eligibility or suitability grounds – need to be communicated more effectively and more quickly. Additionally, the most complex applications such as family member applications, which cannot be made through the app but have to be submitted in paper-form, need to be prioritised as they are more time sensitive.

We will also need to assess whether the Home Office practice generally is in accordance with the Withdrawal Agreement. EU citizens, and their family members, living in the UK before the 31 December 2020 are beneficiaries of the Withdrawal Agreement and restrictions on those benefits, including the above practices, might be unlawful.

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