The Court of Appeal has today handed down judgment in which it has allowed the Home Secretary’s appeal against Mr Justice Blake’s decision in MM and others v Secretary of State  EWHC 1900 Admin. The case concerns the Home Secretary’s controversial rules on family migration requiring that British Citizens or partners lawfully settled in the UK must show that they have an income of at least £18,600 p.a. with additional sums for each child before they can sponsor their foreign partners from outside the European Economic Area. The Court of Appeal has held that the requirements are lawful. The court reached this conclusion essentially on the basis that it was not for the court to analyse the basis of the Secretary of State’s decision to introduce such requirements into the immigration rules which are merely statements of administrative policy.
The test adopted by the court is the same as that which it adopted in Bibi  EWCA Civ 322 (the case concerning the English language requirement), namely that it is enough that the Secretary of State should have a ‘rational belief’ that the policy embodied in the requirements will achieve the identified aim. This is an extremely restrained form of judicial review and suggests a lack of willingness to interfere with governmental decisions. This test seems to conflict with the approach adopted by the Supreme Court in cases such as Baiai  UKHL 53 and Quila  UKSC 45 where the court adopted a rigorous analysis in assessing the evidence and used a test requiring the Secretary of State to show an objective justification. The Supreme Court has already granted permission to appeal in Bibi on arguments which include the argument that the test of a mere rational belief is wrong. It is likely that the present case will also proceed to the Supreme Court on an expedited basis. Whereas Mr Justice Blake’s decision had properly considered the detailed evidence provided by the claimants’ lawyers, the Court of Appeal barely considered it. The decision comes over four months after the appeals were heard in March 2014 and two years after the rules were introduced.
Since Mr Justice Blake’s decision, the Secretary of State has imposed a stay on considering applications which would otherwise have been refused for failure to satisfy the new rules. That stay will no doubt now be lifted. This will at least give people an opportunity to mount an appeal against negative decisions. In the meantime, a great many families who are never likely to be a burden on the state will have been kept apart. Applicants may however still succeed under Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights even if they cannot satisfy the minimum income requirements under the rules. The Court of Appeal rejected the suggestion in Nagre  EWHC 720 Admin that, if the rules cannot be satisfied, the applicant will need to show an arguable case before the decision-maker can move onto considering Article 8.
The Court of Appeal did not treat the rules on minimum income requirements as constituting a complete code for Article 8 purposes such that there was no need to consider Article 8 separately. Indeed, that was not the Secretary of State’s position. The Court of Appeal also noted the Guidance which had initially been produced in a draft form (only on the fourth day of the hearing before Mr Justice Blake) and the Guidance which had then been promulgated in final form after that hearing. That final Guidance directs caseworkers first to consider applications under the rules and, if the applicant does not meet the requirement of the rules, to move onto a second stage. Under that second stage caseworkers are required to consider “whether, based on an overall consideration of the facts of the case, there are exceptional circumstances which mean refusal of the application would result in unjustifiably harsh consequences for the individual or their family such that refusal would not be proportionate under Article 8. If there are such exceptional circumstances, leave outside the rules should be granted, if not, the application should be refused”.
The Court of Appeal has ruled that where the relevant group of immigration rules does not constitute a “complete code” then the proportionality test will be more at large, albeit guided by the Huang tests and UK and Strasbourg case law (see paragraph 134). In other words, unlike rules relating to the deportation of criminals, the application of Article 8 to cases which fail to satisfy the minimum income requirements will have to be carried out in any event in accordance with a straightforward Article 8 assessment. This is why the Court of Appeal goes on to say at paragraph 160 that if, as is suggested in the claimants’ evidence, decision makers have not been applying their minds to whether a “proportionality” test has to be used when considering “exceptional circumstances” in individual cases, the remedy lies in pursuing individual appeals and requiring decision-makers to apply the Huang and normal Article 8 tests. There is no other arguability or exceptionality standard. Therefore, it would seem that, much of Mr Justice Blake’s general comments as to proportionality will in any event be relevant to individual decisions, even if the rules are formally not unlawful.
So all is not lost just yet. The rules have forced significant numbers of British people to go and live in Europe for a reasonable period for time, in exercise of their rights as EU Citizens, before they lawfully come back months later with their spouses under EU law. In other cases, the rules have forced such persons out of the United Kingdom and out of Europe altogether, even though they are British or have been lawfully settled in the UK for many years. The impact on young people, part-time workers and women, particularly those from a racial minority background, who are more likely to be in low-paid jobs, has been particularly severe. The income threshold rules have received criticism from other quarters too. In June 2013, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration issued a report which concluded that the rules were disproportionate. http://www.appgmigration.org.uk/family-inquiry. After the Court of Appeal’s ruling, all factors going to the harshness of the rules will have to be assessed in the context of Article 8 in individual cases.
Tony Muman is instructed on behalf of the First Respondent and the Interested Party and Joseph Neville is instructed on behalf of the Interested Party in this case. To instruct any member of our Immigration & Public Law team please contact the clerks.