We Presenting Officers can usually be put into two categories. The first group is unable to see anything wrong with any decision and will defend it at all costs. Although hopefully they’re few and far between, anyone with a bit of experience before the tribunal has probably come across them. Then you have the second group. Most of us are law graduates who came to the Home Office just to get some experience whilst applying for pupillage or training contracts. The relative flexibility and decent pay kept us here way longer than we’d planned.
So what’s it really like for Home Office Presenting Officers?
Well, first of all there’s the training. Most of my younger colleagues were fresh out of university when they started, although having a law degree is not always a requirement of the job, so in theory anyone who can demonstrate the required competencies could in a month be defending the Secretary of State in appeals. Some worked in other government departments before joining, but not many had real, practical advocacy experience. The Home Office’s two-week training course is everything you’d expect it to be: a run-through of the elements of the Refugee Convention, Appendix FM, basic cross-examination and courtroom etiquette. Most of us will only see a live tribunal hearing after that course is finished. After that, you’re mentored for three or four weeks until you’re deemed good enough to go it alone. There is no training or criteria for mentors, so anyone can offer to be one.
The day-to-day working conditions aren’t too bad. Presenting Officers are at the Higher Executive Officer grade, on a salary of around £32,000. We have a “utilisation rate” to maintain: 60% of the working week should be spent in court, meaning a pattern of two days’ preparation and three days in court a week. But as Secretaries of State can sometimes get confused around this, I can confirm there are no removals targets for Presenting Officers. That said, if your personal win rate is below the national average, you might be asked questions in your performance reviews and possibly subjected to more mentoring.
Apart from that, there is no real oversight of the quality of HOPOs, which is probably really obvious. All of us are observed in court by a Senior Caseworker (yes, they do exist) twice a year. If you notice a HOPO making submissions on fees at the end of the hearing, it’s more than likely because they’re being observed, and not submitting on fee awards is a hot topic at the moment. The Home Office is “somewhat surprised at the number” (ten points if you recognise that phrase) of successful appellants being refunded their court fees.
How long do we get to prepare for a case? Sometimes we really do get the file the day before the hearing. The way our court pattern is set, most of us end up doing back-to-backs (two consecutive days in court with just one day of preparation). This can mean an average reading/prep time of around 90 minutes on each case allocated to us. Lockdown has changed the accessibility of new material coming in (appellants’ bundles), but often important documents (such as bundles submitted for previous appeals) are only in the paper file. This time pressure is why we’re reluctant to venture out of the PO room and discuss cases in the morning: every minute is needed to prep and read because not enough time is built into our schedules to do so.
It’s probably common knowledge we can’t concede any issues without authorisation from a Senior Caseworker. We aren’t just being awkward; that’s what the policy says. Even when confronted with evidence that we might think satisfies the issues in the refusal letter, we have to convince someone else it does. This can be an arduous task as there aren’t really enough Senior Caseworkers to go around, and — particularly on a Friday afternoon — they’re not easy to get hold of by phone. There isn’t really any training for Senior Caseworkers either and they can often be a Presenting Officer acting up temporarily. We can of course choose not to actively pursue an issue in cross-examination, and hope you and the judge can read between the lines.
Final words? Although we’re the face of the Home Office, and are essentially employed to challenge as much as we can of your client’s case, we aren’t all bad. We get as frustrated as you do at having to repeat the lines most of us don’t believe. We shake our heads in exasperation at some of the awful misunderstandings in refusal letters, the sometimes offensive and nonsensical questions deployed in asylum interviews. And believe me when I say it’s probably easier for you to get a response from a caseworker than it is for us.
I set out to shed some light on what it’s like on the other side and hopefully I’ve done that in some small manner. If the editors are graceful enough, I would be open to a follow-up article answering any questions asked about any aspect of the Presenting Officer role or the internal machinations of the Home Office. In the meantime, we don’t all have disdain for activist lawyers.
Got a question for our anonymous Presenting Officer about what it’s like to work at the Home Office? Leave a comment below or email it in.