Until November 2018, in-country visa applications were made directly to the Home Office. These applications were either made by post or, in some cases, could be made in person at various UKVI offices throughout the United Kingdom.
Since then the in-country visa application service has been outsourced to French firm Sopra Steria. In most cases, paper forms have been abolished and applications are made online.
The online forms are not user-friendly and contain a myriad of extra questions which never appeared on the old forms, were never previously requested and which are completely irrelevant to the application concerned.
The forms generate a list of documents that an applicant is asked to provide in support of their application. In many cases we have found the lists omit crucial documents and, in other cases, request documents that have no relevance whatsoever to the application concerned.
As professional practitioners we are able to advise our clients regarding irrelevant questions, correct documentation and thus avoid any problems this might cause. Unfortunately it means that we have constantly to refer to these errors in our written representations accompanying the application.
For those making an application without professional representation it means that they inadvertently provide information requested that is not relevant or required by the Immigration Rules and they also run the risk of failing to provide the correct supporting documents owing to the errors and omissions on the list generated by the online form.
Under the old system, visa applicants applying by post could go to their local post office to provide their biometric data. The new system requires that they attend one of just six “core centres” across the country that offer a free service, or another 51 which charge a fee starting from £60.
Again, under the old system, applicants for certain categories of visa were able to book a same day service at a UKVI office and paid £600 extra for a same-day decision, during which they would meet an immigration officer. Since November with the switch to Sopra Steria they are charged £700 for a 24-hour decision and they no longer meet an immigration officer. Our clients using the so-called 24 hour service have reported that in the absence of a decision the following day, they were told 24 hours meant 24 working hours, i.e 3 days.
Many of our clients have also been unable to book free appointments owing to a lack of availability on Sopra Steria’s website, with some forced to travel hundreds of miles or pay high fees in order to submit their applications on time.
We have also had reports of Sopra Steria employees refusing to upload supporting documents that weren’t on “their list”. This is very serious as the personnel concerned are employees of what is, in effect, the handling agent for the Home Office and they have no competence when it comes to deciding what documents an applicant should or should not submit notwithstanding their “checklist”. It should not be overlooked that Sopra Steria charge extra to upload documents as one of their many additional “services”.
For some of our clients that choose to upload their own documents from home or wherever, we have subsequently had communications from UKVI saying certain documents have not been supplied and that they are unable to make a decision as a result. In all of these cases this was not the case and the matter was subsequently resolved albeit at the cost of additional time and expense to the clients concerned.
Law Society president Christina Blacklaws has raised concerns that the “inconsistent” and “substandard” system could lead to unlawful or incorrect decisions for applicants, or exclude people from the system because of “inflated prices and inaccessible services”.
She said Sopra Steria applicants were being offered “often very costly, unnecessary supplementary services when they may be particularly vulnerable and that there is a real risk of an increase in Home Office refusals based on a lack of evidence simply because the subcontractor has rejected, failed to request or to transfer the relevant evidence from applicants to the Home Office”.
The introduction of the online system for in-country applications is in itself a good idea. But the online forms as introduced are confusing, misleading and user-unfriendly. The failure to provide sufficient application centres with free appointments and instead to concentrate on selling so-called premium services is shameful and yet another indication that the Home Office is intent on pursuing its “hostile environment” policy.
Nelam Trewin, June 2019