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The methods and reports of controversial linguistic analysis company Sprakab, based in Sweden and used by UKBA in disputed nationality asylum cases, have been warmly endorsed by the tribunal in the case RB (Linguistic evidence Sprakab) Somalia [2010] UKUT 329 (IAC).

Sprakab works only for governments and has only ever conducted one language analysis for an individual. Even then, the organisation sought some sort of authorisation from the relevant government before doing so. Sprakab relies on experts whose identities are kept secret. Interviews are short and conducted on sometimes unclear telephone lines. The interviewers only sometimes speak the claimed language as their first language. Trained linguists have a supervisory role but rely entirely on the initial interviewers for their information.

The operation is a profit making one entirely dependent on governments for its income.


[156] We reject the criticism that Sprakab is not independent. Presently it only works for government agencies. This is not immediately a sign of objectivity but we remind ourselves that applicants and decision makers have different functions. The applicant wants a result and some applicants will seek to achieve it by deception. A government based decision-maker, at least in a United Kingdom context, is charged with making a right decision. It has an inquisitorial role that applicants do not. Clearly Sprakab could not give a report to a government agency in a case where it had previously given a report to assist an applicant. If it did make its services available to all comers it could find that it was neutered by a swift and dishonest applicant who, in effect, commissioned not a Sprakab report but Sprakab’s silence. In our experience there is no competing organisation to which a government agency could turn for a report and against this background Sprakab’s fear of a conflict of interests makes more sense.

Firstly, it is curious that the Deputy President considers it a plausible possibility that asylum seekers are sufficiently cynical to start instructing Sprakab in order to buy its silence. Apart from anything else, how on earth would this work? If UKBA then tried to instruct Sprakab but were told it had already been instructed in the case, it would be obvious a report existed. Other competitors would be set up – and indeed I believe there is now a Sprakab competitor as I’ve had a beer with the chap who set it up.

Secondly, it is news to me that UKBA has an inquisitorial role at asylum appeals.

Nepommuck goes on:

[159] Sprakab does not claim to be infallible. It offers four categories of opinion (see paragraphs 89-90) and this opinion evidence must be evaluated with the other evidence in the appeal. The kind of linguistic analysis offered by Sprakab is a serious step towards independent and verifiable opinion but it does not claim to have the reliability of, for example, fingerprint evidence. It may that linguistic analysis of the kind used by Sprakab is a developing discipline and Sprakab will become subject to more peer review. It would certainly be in accordance with our understanding of Sprakab that it will constantly seek to refine and improve its methods. The evidence before us shows that Sprakab provides an honest, serious and useful guide to establishing the location where a person learned to speak.

The tribunal heard no evidence from other independent and respected linguists. The expert for the appellant in this case had, sadly, died shortly before the hearing, and in any event she was not an academic or professional linguist. There was therefore no informed criticism of the working methods and approach of Sprakab. Sprakab gave evidence but it was unanswered, essentially. This is despite the fact that Sprakab is highly controversial in linguistic circles, as a slightly unedifying bust-up at the recent CORI conference loudly demonstrated.

On a related note, I’m considering commissioning some document verification reports from an expert organisation set up in Russia called SMERSH. It was set up by asylum seekers only to do work for asylum seekers. Although it is now in a registered profit-making company, it still only does work for asylum seekers and the one time a government approached it for a report it checked first whether that was OK with asylum seeker community groups.

Needless to say, SMERSH operatives all have secret identities and revealing their identities would put them in danger. They are therefore anonymous.

I can’t see how the operatives being anonymous and their CVs being unverifiable can possibly disadvantage UKBA in the unlikely event they would try to cross-examine one of them, so I’m confident the reports will be given the same weight as that of Sprakab. What do you think?

Interested in refugee law? You might like Colin's book, imaginatively called "Refugee Law" and published by Bristol University Press.

Communicating important legal concepts in an approachable way, this is an essential guide for students, lawyers and non-specialists alike.

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The Free Movement blog was founded in 2007 by Colin Yeo, a barrister at Garden Court Chambers specialising in immigration law. The blog provides updates and commentary on immigration and asylum law by a variety of authors.


2 Responses

  1. I can confirm I have read this post to counsel for RB who is at court with me. He has confirmed he has submitted grounds of appeal against this decision. He also confirms that Smersh has great potential! Just you wait, Henry Higgins….!

    1. Jolly good. I saw him the other day and he said the grounds were already in. I’d be surprised if permission was not granted, there’s quite a lot to say about the decision!