I’m no Ally McBeal but B kept his house…

It’s not often in my professional life that I wish I watched more Ally McBeal, but now is one of those times.  I am sitting in the Asylum Support Tribunal, and the judge has just invited me to ask questions of the appellant.  There is a pause. I’m no barrister.

Two hours ago, I did not anticipate that I would be racking my brain for suitable cross-examination techniques.  My morning was entirely reserved for quality time working at home on a rather urgent funding application. I was interrupted by an unwelcome phone call from the office.  Today was the hearing for our ex-client B’s appeal against the termination by UKBA of his Section 4 accommodation.  We had helped him to submit the appeal, as we had got the bail address for him in the first place, three years ago, to help him get released from detention.  B  had an argument with his accommodation provider, and they are accusing him of breaching the terms of his accommodation agreement.  B is a refused asylum seeker and the Iranian authorities will not allow him to return, so he risks becoming permanently homeless.

The first piece of bad news is that the adviser from the Asylum Support Appeals Project, who was due to represent him at the Tribunal, is ill.  The second piece of bad news is that the appeal is due to start in an hour in Docklands, while B is somewhere in the region of Peterborough, on a severely delayed train.

We picture B’s hearing starting without either him or a representative.  I did some training with ASAP on representing at court several years ago.  I have known B for about five years, since his lengthy stay in detention.  He was one of the first clients who worked with us to campaign against detention. So I throw on my suit.

Waiting for the DLR at Bank, I am greeted by an enthusiastic voice.  It is B, who has somehow made excellent time from Peterborough, and is delighted to spot me on the platform.  B is in remarkably good humour, given the circumstances, and is unperturbed to discover that we have the same destination and that I will in fact be his representative.

I spend the DLR journey and the fifteen minutes I am allowed on arrival at the Tribunal attempting to brief B, take advice from the unflappable Mike at ASAP, and read the voluminous appeal bundle.  “Flick through” better a better verb than “read”, since it is an inch thick.

The hearing begins. We get through my cross-examination, with some prompting from the judge.  B remains calm, politely apologises for losing his temper at the (entirely unreasonable) behaviour of the accommodation provider, but denies abusing or pushing anyone.  Happily, one document that I did manage to salvage from the wreckage of my bundle, which is now spread in about five random piles across my table, is a statement from the accommodation provider, which also makes no reference to either abuse or violence.

The Home Office Presenting Officer also seems to be looking through his bundle at random.  His is uploaded onto a laptop, but it doesn’t seem to be helping.  He finds evidence of previous breaches of the conditions of B’s Section 4 accommodation, from 2008.  B can hardly contain himself: he was in detention throughout 2008, so can hardly have breached any Section 4 conditions.  I nod vigorously, having seen him there myself, repeatedly, and find a document that more or less proves the point.

I make my submissions.  On a rising tide of eloquence, I demonstrate the flimsiness of the evidence against B.  I point out his hitherto apparently exemplary behaviour in the three years since he was released, despite having to live in temporary accommodation without access to cash.  Reaching a crescendo, I point out the closure of the Iranian Embassy, that it refused to grant a travel document to B for the nearly three years he was detained, that he therefore has no option but to stay in the UK, and therefore the disproportionality of making him permanently homeless.

I turn to the judge.  She makes a barely perceptible movement of her eyes, which unmistakeably is telling me to get on with it.  I sit down.  She allows the appeal.  B will keep his accommodation.