Tribunal experts fear attacks on integrity

Home Office accused of routinely denigrating academic expertise. Melanie Newman reports

November 6, 2008

Academics working as expert witnesses in asylum and immigration tribunals say their integrity and expertise is being routinely denigrated as the courts come under pressure to deny people entry to the UK.

One tribunal was forced to apologise to a University of Oxford academic last month after he threatened to sue for libel over comments made in a draft judgment.

The draft judgment said that Alan George's evidence should "be treated with caution" by the tribunal in future. A later tribunal referred to the remarks as evidence that it was entitled to have "fears about his objectiveness".

Both remarks have now been withdrawn, with the initial tribunal "sincerely apologising" to Dr George.

The case involved a single mother from Lebanon who was appealing against a deportation order. Of the 20-page final judgment, six pages were devoted to "difficulties" with Dr George's evidence, including references to comments made by other tribunals. The tribunal allowed the appeal.

Dr George said the case exemplified the worsening treatment of expert witnesses by judges and Home Office representatives.

Last year, 14 Middle East experts, including seven academics, wrote to Sir Henry Hodge, president of the asylum and immigration tribunal, noting that Home Office lawyers "routinely resort to attacking the integrity and credentials of experts". Sir Henry replied saying he had seen "no evidence" of widespread abuse of expert witnesses.

George Joffe, visiting professor of geography at King's College London and one of the letter's signatories, said he now tried to avoid going to court, though he still produced expert witness reports.

"If the Home Office presenting officers lack experience of a country, they will argue a personal case against the witness," he said. He recounted a case in which he was asked how many attacks had taken place on a certain road in Iraq. Because he could not answer, the tribunal "dismissed his evidence", he said.

"It's getting worse because there's a supposition on the part of the courts that they have to send people back," he said. "Before 2003, the bench wouldn't allow people to be really abused by Home Office officers or counsel. After the war on Iraq, things became much more difficult."

Abbas Shiblak, a research fellow at Oxford's Refugee Studies Centre, said the Home Office officials routinely attempted to apply "the standards of liberal democracy" when it came to proof of torture.

"They ask questions such as 'Why didn't you get a certificate from your GP?' or 'Why didn't you make a formal complaint?' which ignore the reality of the situation," he said.

Government representatives also ignore sources such as human rights agencies in favour of official reports that "set out promises but do not reflect what is actually happening", Dr Shiblak said.

He said he had been personally accused of being partial because of his Palestinian origins. "The judge went along with (the notion) that I had a partisan attitude without challenging the substance of my report," he said.

A spokesperson for the UK Border Agency said that staff representing the agency must assist the immigration judge by testing the evidence of an expert witness, which could require scrutinising a witness' experience and understanding. "Any specific allegations that an officer acting on behalf of the UK Border Agency has not met professional standards ... will be taken seriously and subjected to full investigation," the spokesperson added.

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