Getting refugee decisions appealed in court ‘the luck of the draw,’ study shows

Sean Rehaag continues his important work in revealing inconsistencies in decision-making depending on the federal court judge hearing the application. Virtually all reviews of decision-making processes highlight how perspectives and biases (and Kahneman’s ‘automatic thinking’) can lead to such results:

It is a crapshoot whether refugee claimants can get a second chance from the Federal Court to review and appeal a decision that potentially determines their life and death, according to a new study.

“Outcomes in Federal Court applications for judicial review of refugee determinations depended all too often on the luck of the draw — on which judge decided the case,” said York University law professor Sean Rehaag, author of the report released by the Social Sciences Research Network this month.

“Refugee claimants whose applications for judicial review are denied continue to have good reason to wonder whether this was because of the facts of their case and the law, or whether they simply lost the luck of the draw.”

Both failed refugees and the federal government can appeal a refugee board decision to the court but must first get a nod — or leave — from a judge before the case can proceed to a full hearing. If the first judge denies leave, the appeal will not be heard. Sometimes, the court is the last resort before a failed refugee claimant is deported from Canada to face potential risks back home.

Federal Court Chief Justice Paul Crampton acknowledged Rehaag’s study raises some important questions.

“There is a very real fairness dimension to the wide variation in the rates at which individual judges grant leave,” Crampton told the Star in a statement. “This is so despite the element of subjectivity in making judicial determinations, especially on judicial review, where the standard that the court is called upon to apply in most cases is whether the decision under review was ‘unreasonable.’”

Based on 33,920 Federal Court leave applications involving refugees, the study found only 16.8 per cent of the requests were granted to proceed to an appeal hearing and just 7.8 per cent of them were ultimately successful in getting an asylum decision stayed and having the cases reopened.

The study is the sequel to one conducted by Rehaag in 2012 when he found individual judges varied tremendously in their grant rates for leave and judicial reviews.

Since the release of the first study, Crampton has raised awareness of the issue among judges and even considered amending rules to include a list of factors for judges to weigh in applying the existing leave test, but decided it would be better to include this in legislation.

“Given the important principle that individual judges must decide cases before them on the merits, completely independently of any influence by other persons, the court has continued to wrestle with how to reduce the variation in leave grant rates,” Crampton said.

According to the study, from 2008 to 2011, some judges only allowed 1.5 per cent of the appeal requests they handled to proceed to a full hearing while others approved more than 30 per cent of those requests. One judge, Justice Douglas Campbell, actually granted leave to 95.9 per cent of his cases.

Wide gaps were also identified in the outcomes of the appeals, with some rejecting almost every appeal before them and others reopening 33.8 per cent of the cases and sending them back for a new assessment.

However, despite the court’s effort to address the issue, the gaps among judges’ approval rates persisted after 2012.

From 2013 to 2016, the leave grant rates varied from 5.3 per cent by Justice Judith Snider on the low end to 49.2 per cent by Justice Elizabeth Heneghan on the high end. Appellants, who got leave to proceed to a full hearing, had a 1.8 per cent success rate if they appeared before Justice Richard Boivin but a 22.8 per cent chance to succeed in reopening their cases if they were before Justice Leonard Mandamin.

The report recommends the court allow all appeals a full hearing or at least have two judges to decide on leave to counterbalance any potential bias.

Source: Getting refugee decisions appealed in court ‘the luck of the draw,’ study shows

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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