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Pre-hearing conference

Chapter number: 
Pre-Hearing Steps
Last updated: 
30 November 2014
Best Practice Guide to Asylum and Human Rights Appeals
by Mark Henderson & Alison Pickup

31.1 A pre-hearing conference is an essential part of the appeal preparation. This should not take place on the day of the hearing itself. Given the gravity and complexity of the issues, it is unacceptable to brief an advocate to conduct the hearing without arranging such a conference. The pre-hearing conference should take place before the witness statement is finalised in case it needs to be amended in light of the issues that arise at the conference. It should be attended by a representative of the instructing solicitors (preferably the person with conduct of the case). This will enable difficult issues to be worked through more effectively and efficiently at the conference. It is also important that the instructing solicitors have an independent record of their client's instructions on what are likely to be the most sensitive and problematic areas of the case (quite possibly areas in which the client has given conflicting instructions in the past). It is not appropriate to ask the interpreter to try to combine his own role with that of the solicitor's representative at the conference. Interpreting is a distinct and demanding job. It is not practical to expect the interpreter even to take a note of the conference.

31.2 Your client should have been provided with a translation of any statement already submitted and of the Home Office interview record if the latter raises any credibility issues. She should be reminded to bring these to the conference.

31.3 The conference should begin with a detailed explanation of what will happen at the hearing. That should include what the hearing room will look like, who will be there, what their roles are, and in what order things will happen. An appellant may worry about the most seemingly innocuous details, like whether she stands or sits and how she addresses the judge. It is particularly important to explain the role of the court interpreter (see chapter 34).

Examination in chief

31.4 Explain that the Tribunal will have been provided with her witness statement, and that your first questions after establishing her name and address will be whether she is familiar with its contents and whether it is true. (She may otherwise become worried or confused by these first questions, particularly when in a heightened state of nervousness at the very start of her evidence.)

31.5 If you are going to ask supplementary questions, you should normally tell her what areas they will cover. Do not give her an exact list of questions that will constitute your examination in chief: this could be interpreted as rehearsing the witness. There is undoubtedly a risk that a nervous client with little else to think about will fixate upon these questions and how she is going to respond so that the answers ultimately sound both rehearsed and contrived.

31.6 You must, however, make sure during the pre-hearing conference that she is capable of answering the questions confidently: ask your questions from different angles so as to satisfy yourself of the answers you will get to your examination in chief.

Cross-examination and re-examination

31.7 The majority of the appellant's oral evidence is likely to be spent dealing with cross-examination. She needs to be aware of this. She needs to understand that cross-examination represents her main opportunity to put her case personally to the Tribunal. She must listen to the questions and make sure that she answers them (or else explains why she cannot answer). But impress on her that answering the point is not the same as agreeing with the point: this is her opportunity to explain to the Tribunal why the Home Office is wrong. Do not assume that she will understand this. Contradicting a state official in a formal setting may not come naturally to your client and may have very different consequences in her home country.

31.8 You are not permitted to rehearse, practise, or coach a witness. Your role is to probe potential weaknesses in her evidence and assess how real these are. Your ability to re-examine effectively is entirely dependent on how thoroughly you have done this. You should find out what the answer will be to any follow up question you may ask in response to foreseeable lines of cross-examination. Apparent weaknesses may turn out on investigation to have arisen from omissions, misunderstandings or ambiguities in the draft witness statement. If so, it should be amended. Other responses may also be incorporated naturally into the narrative of the witness statement, thereby avoiding unnecessary cross-examination and court time. If they do not fit naturally within the narrative, they may be best left for re-examination if needs be.

31.9 You may well have to question your client robustly. The first time your client is asked a difficult question should not be by the HOPO in front of the Tribunal. The pre-hearing conference serves a different purpose from the interviews at which the statement was taken. Your purpose when taking the statement was to elicit all information relevant to her case and to ensure that you understood it before including it in the statement. You would allow her to speak about what she thought was important, regardless of its direct relevance to the question, and then come back to the question if necessary later.

31.10 However, you must now accustomise your client to the strictures which will govern her oral evidence. She will not be permitted to give evidence in that style at the hearing, particularly in cross-examination. She will have to learn to focus on and deal with the questions which are put. You need to tell her if she is not answering the question, and explain why she is not answering the question. She needs to understand the distinction between disagreeing with a point and failing to address it. It does her no service to give her free rein in the conference only for her to face constant interruptions from the Tribunal when she behaves in the same way in the hearing.

31.11 You should also explain common techniques of cross-examination such as leading questions. She should not allow the HOPO to force her into a 'yes' or 'no' answer where it is not as simple as that. (Conversely, she should not elaborate where the question can be dealt with by a single word.) She should not be put off by an aggressive or disbelieving tone on the part of the HOPO: he is not making the decision. Warn your client that those questions which are asked most aggressively may be those with the least justification. If she does not understand a question she should always say so rather than guess the answer. Explain that you may object if you consider a question to be unclear or unfair and a discussion may follow: the important thing for her is to concentrate on the question that is ultimately put.

31.12 Explain that you will be offered an opportunity to ask further questions in re-examination, but you may not need to do so (see chapter 37).

General advice on giving evidence

31.13 Your client will be concerned about giving her evidence in a manner which convinces the Tribunal. The IAT and the High Court have emphasised the dangers of making adverse credibility findings based on an assessment of oral evidence of a witness who speaks in a foreign language and is of a wholly different culture and background from the Tribunal. Given the difficulties in envisaging any safe method by which the Tribunal could dismiss oral evidence on the basis of demeanour, mannerisms, pattern of speech, or tone of voice, it is not possible - nor is it permissible - to give detailed guidelines on how to give evidence in a manner that will convince the Tribunal.

31.14 Rather than attempt to second guess the basis upon which the Tribunal may dismiss oral evidence, it is better to concentrate on assisting your client to give her evidence as confidently as possible. She should remember that she is talking to the Tribunal and putting her case. She should not pretend the judge is not there. If he puts a question to her, she should pay particular attention. He will be asking because he needs to know the answer, not as a means of supporting the case against her.

31.15 If your client is giving evidence in English, warn her that she may be interrupted if she starts speaking too quickly as everyone has to make a proper note. If she is using another language, explain the role of the court interpreter. She should always say if she has difficulty understanding him, either at the outset or at any point during her evidence. The court interpreter may interrupt if her answer is too long to interpret in one go.

31.16 Most judges do not ask witnesses to give evidence on oath. However, if the witness wishes to do so, this should be permitted (Nakhuda (9269)). Ask her beforehand if she wants to give evidence on oath, and if so ensure that the Tribunal will have any necessary book available in the hearing room.

31.17 You should check whether she wishes to have the public excluded from the hearing, or steps taken to protect her identity (see chapter 32). Also consider whether your client has any vulnerability that would make it appropriate to request other steps in relation to the conduct of the hearing. The Joint Presidential Guidance Note No. 2 of 2010: Child, Vulnerable Adult or Sensitive Appellant Guidance advises the Tribunal on particular steps to be taken to ensure that "the substantive hearing can proceed with minimal exposure to trauma or further trauma of vulnerable witnesses and appellants" (para 4). It recommends a number of steps, including "rearrangement of furniture to enable a child friendly or less formal structure eg all on the same level" and ensuring that "the time estimate provided allows for special arrangements eg frequent breaks to ensure adequate concentration levels...". The Senior President's Practice Direction on Child, Vulnerable Adult and Sensitive Witnesses advises Tribunals to consider allowing evidence to be given by video link or other means, or to appoint a person "who has the appropriate skills or experience in facilitating the giving of evidence" by such a witness. The IAA Gender Guidelines suggested rearranging the hearing room to make it less formal, giving evidence via video link, provision of a female interpreter, or an all-female court. The latter involves not only a female judge but the Home Office being directed to provide a female HOPO. Note, however, that anecdotal but consistent reports indicate that some of the worst examples of offensive cross-examination by HOPOs of victims of rape have occurred in the context of an all-female court. The Joint Presidential Guidance Note now indicates that any request for a single gender Tribunal should be considered but advises judges to "bear in mind that sensitive issues may not be the subject of questions or core to the evidence".