The treatment by Home Office decision-makers and immigration judges of expert medical reports comes under scrutiny and is found wanting in a new report from Freedom from Torture.
This report, Body of evidence: treatment of medico-legal reports for survivors of torture in the UK asylum tribunal, documents the common ways in which expert medical reports submitted in support of asylum claims are marginalised or rejected, and demands that medico-legal reports (MLRs) be treated with respect by UK Border Agency (UKBA) officials and by immigration judges dealing with asylum claims. It calls on the Tribunal’s president to issue specific guidelines to immigration judges on how to address expert medical evidence, and for more training on the issue, to avoid some of the more common errors judges make. It makes similar recommendations to the Home Office, calling for urgent revision of the policy guidance and training for caseworkers.
The standards of objectivity, impartiality and rigour applied to writers of MLRs have been pushed up over the years; writers must demonstrate their expertise, their familiarity with the Istanbul Protocol criteria for assessing injuries and the Ikarian Reefer standards of impartiality. But no such standards apply to decision-makers assessing reports in the context of an asylum claim. Decision-makers and judges have got used to assessing an asylum seeker’s credibility by the lazy method of ‘discrepancy-counting’, and cannot shake off this habit even when told – as they have been by many medical journal articles and research reports over the past decade – that torture survivors experience particular memory difficulties and so discrepancies in their accounts, reflecting poor recall, are normal. Too often, UKBA officials and immigration judges fall back on prejudice, the ‘culture of disbelief’, the fact of having already rejected a claimant ‘s testimony, or ‘common-sense’ and frequently erroneous medical knowledge, to dismiss expert testimony on the causation of injuries in asylum cases – with potentially fatal results.
In the wake of the report, a three-month pilot project has been announced involving UKBA, Freedom from Torture (Previously known as the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture and the Helen Bamber Foundation (HBF), who between them provide the majority of MLRs in asylum and human rights claims and have established a formidable reputation for the quality of their reports. The pilot, in north and east London, Wales and the South West, acts on some of the recommendations in the report. The most important feature is that if Freedom from Torture or HBF produces a report which supports the applicant’s claim, the fact that the applicant has been tortured or subjected to serious harm should be accepted unless there are significant reasons for rejecting that conclusion – which should lead to more positive decisions on asylum claims.
Download a copy of the report Body of evidence: treatment of medico-legal reports for survivors of torture in the UK asylum tribunal here (pdf file, 2.5mb)