The High Court recently upheld an important challenge in the field of asylum support. In June 2013, the Home Secretary decided that weekly cash payments to “destitute” asylum seekers in the 2013-14 financial year should remain frozen at the rate which had applied since 2011. In R (on the application of Refugee Action) v Home Secretary, Popplewell J quashed that decision, which now falls for reconsideration by the Home Secretary in light of the judgment.
The legislation provides that the cash payments are to cover “essential living needs” other than accommodation, which (including utility bills, council tax and basic furnishings) is provided for separately. However, as most asylum seekers and their dependents are prohibited from claiming benefits and from seeking work, the payments represent the sole source of income for these households.
The frozen weekly payments amount to £36.63 for a single adult, £43.94 for a single parent, £39.80 for 16-17 year olds and £52.96 for a child under 16 (although this does not apply to unaccompanied children, to whom separate provisions apply). Pregnant women and babies under the age of two receive additional payments of up to £5 weekly and pregnant women also receive a one-off maternity payment of £300.
The charity Refugee Action sought judicial review of the freeze on multiple grounds. While rejecting or declining to decide other grounds, Popplewell J upheld the claim for the following two reasons:
- In reaching her decision to freeze the payments, the Home Secretary left out of her consideration certain needs, which qualify as “essential living needs”.
- In setting the level of the payments, her analysis was flawed in several significant ways. For example, the fact that she proceeded on the “erroneous footing” that asylum support rates had increased in absolute terms by 11.5% when in fact they had decreased by that amount.
The case is an interesting read, not only on its own merits, but also because it raises at least two important constitutional issues: two-tiered standards of review and NGOs as judicial review claimants.
1. A two-tiered standard of review
In setting the level of asylum support, the Home Secretary had to conclude that the payments are adequate to meet “essential living needs”. It was therefore necessary for her to identify what living needs are “essential”. The claimants challenged her assessment, asserting that she had left out of consideration various items, which should be considered to qualify as “essential living needs.”
Faced with this challenge, the first question for the court is who gets to decide what is an “essential living need”? Is it an objective question (and thus suitable for the Court to define), or is it to be subjectively judged by the Secretary of State?
Popplewell J’s answer that it was both – and thus he outlined a two-tiered approach to reviewing the Home Secretary’s assessment.
It was an objective question insofar as the area had been the subject of an EU Directive, which imposes “minimum reception conditions” for countries receiving asylum seekers. The Marleasing principle (that national legislation must be interpreted in a manner which gives effect to EU law) therefore required that “[p]rovision for essential living needs . . . be interpreted as including, as a minimum, provision of the minimum reception conditions required by the Directive,” which conditions constitute an objective standard (para 85).
However, this is an example of a Directive setting a baseline minimum of protection. Essentially all that is required is that asylum support ensures respect for human dignity, maintenance of an adequate standard of health and that subsistence living needs are met. Most countries, including the U.K., go further in terms of providing for the destitute.
Popplewell J considered that once you exit the territory of the Directive and provide further guarantees, the question of what is an “essential” living need becomes a matter for the subjective assessment of the Home Secretary (para 90). The reason given is that what is “essential” (beyond the bare minimum, on which we can all agree) is “a criterion on which views may differ widely” and thus involves the making of a “value judgment”, which function has been conferred by Parliament on the executive.
The result of this is that, outside the territory of the Directive, the Home Secretary’s decision as to what constitutes essential living needs is only open to challenge on the Wednesbury standard of review.
The present case is an example, though, of a situation where the notoriously high Wednesbury hurdle was overcome because the Home Secretary had failed to take into account relevant considerations to a sufficient extent to vitiate her decision. Counsel for the Home Secretary accepted that certain items (including washing powder, cleaning materials and non-prescription medication) were essential living needs (para 99), yet the evidence was that they were not considered by the Secretary of State in her decision (para 100). Similarly, the provision of certain equipment for babies and new mothers was implicitly accepted as being essential because the governments asserted (incorrectly, the Judge concluded) that it was provided for by the extra payments made to pregnant women and children under the age of 2.
Further, Popplewell J was able to find that costs associated with the asylum application not covered by legal aid (para 104) and the cost of participating in social, cultural and religious life (para 113-116) fall within the ambit of the “minimum” conditions imposed by the Directive and thus are certainly deserving of consideration by the Secretary of State, if not precise delimitation by the court.
The case is thus an example of a two-tiered approach to review. Basic guarantees are not discretionary, meaning that the court can flex its interventionist muscles if it disagrees with the executive’s conclusion as to what is included. However, beyond that we are in the realm of discretionary decision-making, where the courts will back off and defer to the executive in the absence of irrationality.
This bifurcated approach to review is not particularly controversial, but is likely to structure future challenges in this sector. It will also make it very difficult to challenge a decision in the discretionary realm in a case where a proper process has been followed and errors such as were abundant on the facts of this case have been avoided.
- Judicial review challenges brought by NGOs
This case is an example of a successful claim by an NGO. The Government has been strident in its opposition to NGOs acting as claimants in judicial review (see Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s most recent comments on the matter in The Telegraph). The Government’s earlier proposals for judicial review reform would have seen NGOs denied standing to bring judicial review claims. Fortunately, that proposal has been abandoned in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, but the latter still introduces numerous reforms to the costs regime that will cripple the ability of many organisations to take on the risk of litigation (see this earlier UK Constitutional Law Association Blog post by Ben Jaffey and Tom Hickman).
However, one should be careful before deploying this case as an example of why squeezing NGOs out of judicial review would be a bad thing. At several stages, Popplewell J makes clear that, in his view, the challenge was hampered by the fact that it was “general” in nature, as opposed to being “brought by an individual whose personal circumstances were in evidence” (para 43). For example, he ascribes the difficulties he has in determining what local authorities provide to asylum seekers as being:
“no doubt the result of the general nature of the present challenge, which led in the course of argument to hypothetical examples of particular individual circumstances giving rise to particular needs. Such hypothetical examples would have been easier to address on a case by case basis with the assistance of the specific applicable powers and duties of local authorities, and, importantly, evidence of how they were applied as a matter of policy and practice. Local authorities might have wished to be heard on some aspects. The result is that the following analysis has been undertaken on a less well informed basis and at a higher level of generality than I would have liked, and than would have been possible in a challenge by an individual whose personal circumstances were in evidence.” (Para 43)
Similarly, the Judge was unwilling to engage in the hypothetical that some asylum seekers might fall into a “gap” in protection in the absence of evidence that an actual person in that situation existed, concluding:
“there is no evidential basis on the current generic challenge for concluding that there are infirm children of asylum seekers whose additional non accommodation related essential living needs are not being met by local authorities and whose circumstances are not to be categorised as exceptional.” (Para 82)
If this case is used, as it should be, to illustrate the role of NGOs in bringing to light faulty decision-making by the government, it is likely that these dicta will be cited in an attempt to show that NGOs should not be using judicial review in this way. The criticisms can, however, be answered.
Part of the answer lies in the judgment itself. Whilst suggesting in the passages cited above that an individual challenge would have presented fewer difficulties, Popplewell J also criticises other parts of the evidence as coming from too few affected individuals. This is in relation to material that the claimant served evidencing the problems asylum seekers encounter under the current payments, such as having to miss meals and being unable to afford adequate clothing (para 133). Popplewell J commented that:
“…it is a partial body of relevant evidence, in both senses of the word. It can not properly be regarded as conclusive. The Claimant’s survey was based on the responses of a relatively small group and did not paint a homogenous picture. None of the material could be treated as demonstrably representative or beyond doubt.” (Para 134)
What this shows is that both evidence relating to the situations of specific individuals and wide-ranging survey evidence can be useful in challenging policy decisions in this sector. An NGO such as Refugee Action is best placed to collect both kinds of evidence. It is clearly more capable of collecting the wide-ranging “demonstrably representative” evidence than an individual challenger would be. However, arguably, it is also just as – if not more – capable of collecting evidence relating to the situations of a specific individual because it is more likely to be able to locate the relevant person. Indeed, the publicity attendant with bringing the claim in the first place might bring individuals out of the woodwork, whose situations would otherwise have remained unknown to the court.
This case has been lauded by some commentators as a “damning” judgment for the Home Secretary (see, for example, this post by Chris Yeo on the Free Movement Blog). Not only is it a landmark decision in this subject-area, it is well worth reading for its contribution to the discussion surrounding the appropriate standard of review in relation to policy decisions. And –perhaps most importantly – it is the latest example of a successful claim by an NGO bringing to light manifest failures in government decision-making that affects some of the most vulnerable in our society.
Emily MacKenzie is a barrister at Brick Court Chambers and is currently working as an International Law Fellow at the American Society of International Law
(Suggested citation: E. MacKenzie, ‘Successful challenge to levels of asylum support – R (on the application of Refugee Action) v Home Secretary’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (8th May 2014) (available at: http://ukconstitutionallaw.org/).