Updates, commentary, training and advice on immigration and asylum law

How complex is UK immigration law and is this a problem?


Older content is locked

A great deal of time and effort goes into producing the information on Free Movement, become a member of Free Movement to get unlimited access to all articles, and much, much more


By becoming a member of Free Movement, you not only support the hard-work that goes into maintaining the website, but get access to premium features;

  • Single login for personal use
  • FREE downloads of Free Movement ebooks
  • Access to all Free Movement blog content
  • Access to all our online training materials
  • Access to our busy forums
  • Downloadable CPD certificates

One of the fundamental principles of the rule of law is that the law “must be accessible and so far as possible intelligible, clear and predictable” (Tom Bingham, The Rule of Law, 2010). The reasons for this should be self evident. Just as it is impossible to play a sport fairly without knowing the rules, so it is impossible to live life fairly without knowing the law, or at least being able to find out what it is.

Immigration law is anything but accessible, intelligible, clear and predictable.

Accessibility: what does immigration law say?

The first issue with immigration law is finding out what it says.

Lord Neuberger, another former President of the Supreme Court, said to the Australian Bar Association in July 2017

One access aspect of the rule of law which is sometimes overlooked is access to the law itself, in other words access to statutes, secondary legislation and case law. It is of course a fundamental requirement of the rule of law that laws are clearly expressed and easily accessible. To put the point simply, people should know, or at least be able to find out, what the law is.

The problem is caused partly by repeated amendment of the underlying legislative provisions of immigration law, which are now scattered around Acts of Parliament from 1971, 1988, 1999, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2014 and 2016. All of these not only set out free standing provisions of their own but also amend previous legislation. The older Acts have been amended and re-amended repeatedly.

The original versions are readily available at legislation.gov.uk. This is no use at all in immigration law, though. It is essential to be able to access the current, amended versions. These are not available at all, or at least not reliably.

Lord Neuberger went on to say that this is a “lamentable” state of affairs:

the updating service to deal with amendments and repeals is little short of lamentable, with amendments and repeals sometimes not being recorded more than six years after the event. It should not cost much for the UK government to ensure that its legislation website is kept up-to-date, so that current legislation is freely available to everyone.

And that is before we start looking at the secondary legislation.

Sheer volume is one issue. HC395, to give the Immigration Rules their formal title, was introduced in 1994 and ran to 80 pages. Today the same document weighs in at over 1,000. Even allowing for bigger font sizes and judicial orders as to what must be included, there has undeniably been sprawl over the years.

That is not all. Migrants, lawyers and judges are now faced by rules and regulations which are, uniquely, set out in a non-sequential fashion. This breaks a legal drafting convention that can be traced to at least the Ten Commandments. The rules are so difficult to comprehend that it is hard even to describe their complexity. It is easiest to give a commonplace example.

Appendix FM of the Immigration Rules applies to family members. It is arguably the single most important section, for which it is vital that the rules are clear.

If a spouse or partner is applying for leave to remain in the UK, some of the rules are set out at, for example, section R-LTRP. These rules cross reference requirements set out in section E-LTRP and EX.1. How does one find these sections? The paragraphs are not set out in any numerical or alphabetical sequence. One has to swim directionless through the alphabet soup until serendipity strikes.

Intelligible, clear and predictable: what does immigration law mean?

Even if you can find out what immigration law says about a given immigration scenario, is it possible to understand what the law means? For members of the public the answer is increasingly “no” and even lawyers and judges struggle to make sense of many provisions of immigration law.

This is a problem. First Parliamentary Counsel Richard Heaton recognised that complexity was a growing issue in modern law making in 2013:

Excessive complexity hinders economic activity, creating burdens for individuals, businesses and communities. It obstructs good government. It undermines the rule of law.

Judge Nicholas Easterman of the First-tier Tribunal put it more bluntly in decidedly unofficial comments towards the end of 2017:

Immigration law is a total nightmare. I don’t suppose the judges know any more about it than the appellants who come before them.

In an ever expanding series of cases, more senior judges have condemned the complexity of UK immigration law. For example, in the case of Pokhriyal v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2013] EWCA Civ 1568, Jackson LJ stated that the “provisions have now achieved a degree of complexity which even the Byzantine emperors would have envied”. More recently, in a case called Robinson v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2019] UKSC 11 in the Supreme Court, Lord Lloyd-Jones said

As will be apparent from this judgment, the structure of both primary and secondary legislation in this field has reached such a degree of complexity that there is an urgent need to make the law and procedure clear and comprehensible.

Here’s a collection of other quotes through which you can cycle at leisure:

It is not just in reported cases that judges have criticised the complexity of immigration law. Giving oral evidence to the Constitution Committee of the House of Lords in December 2016, Sir Ernest Ryder, the Senior President of Tribunals, explains the pace of change and the layering of complexity in immigration law:

We have had eight immigration Acts in 12 years, three EU directives and approximately—my apologies for being approximate—30 statutory instruments. The Immigration Rules themselves have been amended 97 times over the same period, which is approximately eight times a year, and are four times larger, and in a smaller typeface, than they were 10 years ago.

The Immigration Rules no longer contain all or indeed most of the policy that is to be implemented, which is of course their primary purpose. The policy is separately provided in—if I may say so—rather dense and unconsolidated guidance that one can access through the Home Office website, but that generally does not show you the previously existing guidance on the same topic, or how the guidance has changed. If you are an unwitting litigant whose first language is not English and you have no recourse to public funding, because this is an immigration case, not an asylum case, your chances of accessing any of that material and putting it together in a coherent way are negligible.

Finding, cross referencing and understanding the legal requirements is all hard enough. When the requirements are identified and understood they are sometimes incredibly arcane.

Only evidence in a certain format will be accepted for some types of application, for example. There are huge appendices to the Immigration Rules setting out “Specified Evidence” for certain types of evidence. Confusingly, these sometimes introduce additional substantive requirements not set out in the main rules.

Take a look at Appendix FM-SE for family members, for example. The main rules in Appendix FM make clear that the minimum earnings rule of £18,600 applies for spouses. It is only in the detail of Appendix FM-SE that it transpires it must be earned for a minimum period of six months for employees and up to two years for the self employed, though.

Or that if you have an online bank account, you may need to get each printed page stamped by a bank, but the bank may well refuse to do so. If a photograph is wrong, for example because of too much smile or an incorrect background, the entire application can be rejected, the (huge) fee forfeited and the applicant suddenly rendered an overstayer.

The complexity of the requirements combined with the high cost of getting it wrong — both in terms of the application fee routinely being over £1,000 and the risk of becoming an overstayer — mean that it is highly advisable to use a good lawyer. It should not be like that.

Causes and solutions

The introduction of the Points Based System in 2008 marked a turning point. The detail of the requirements for entry to the UK became almost unknowable. Brexit offers an opportunity for a reset of immigration policy and law, as recommended by the Home Affairs Committee in a January 2018 report, although it seems doubtful that the government will be in any fit state to use it.

As Judge Julian Phillips said in his evidence to the House of Lords Constitution Committee:

It is very easy for us to say that we should simplify and consolidate. It is not so easy to do it.

There was a Simplification Bill drawn up between 2007 and 2009 intended to simplify and consolidate the legal framework for immigration law. The effort was eventually abandoned. There were all sorts of significant problems with the proposals, not least because the exercise was used by the government of the day as an opportunity to reduce rights and enhance executive powers. But at least effort was made.

The Law Commission has now taken up the case, having been asked by the Secretary of State to “redraft the Rules to make them simpler and more accessible to the user”. This has been welcomed by the Home Affairs Committee, which pointed out that “people are less likely to have confidence in a system which they cannot understand or access easily”. Sequential numbering would be a good start, for example in Appendix FM and Appendix V.

This does not deal with the stream of secondary legislation spewing forth from the Home Office so frequently. It is often this secondary legislation that causes the most significant practical problems.

Adherence to Denis Healey’s Law of Holes (when in a hole, stop digging) would be a welcome start. Politicians could stop introducing new immigration legislation. If changes have to be made, they could be subject to proper consultation and scrutiny. Rather than new rules and forms amounting to a long shopping list of Home Office demands, the minimum necessary requirements could be identified.

The trend towards tortuousness began as a result of haste and incompetence. I suspect the continued layering of new complexity on old has come to be opportunistically embraced. The net migration target drives UK immigration policy and the government does not even want migrants to be able to understand and therefore abide by immigration law. The opacity and complexity of the rules serves as a useful barrier to many migrants and acts as a useful financial filter, as it is only those who can afford a good lawyer who can successfully navigate those rules.

The point has been reached where the decision to continue to make immigration law more complex rather than more simple has become a tool to drive down net migration.

This is a revised and updated version of a blog post originally published in August 2017.

Relevant articles chosen for you