Sick of Waiting Years for Decisions on Citizenship, Applicants Are Taking Legal Action – and Winning Settlements

After two years waiting for a decision on his citizenship application, Mehdi Abbasi, a taxi driver in the city, began to run out of patience.

“I mean, I was 18 when I came here. I felt like I was Irish,” he said recently, sitting on the edge of a park bench, his hands in the pockets of his navy-blue hoodie.

His solicitor at the time told him two years wasn’t that long. That felt invalidating, he says. “She said I have a client waiting for five years. Two years is nothing, you have to be happy.”

But in April 2021, another solicitor sent a letter of warning to the Department of Justice: an ultimatum to issue a decision or face legal action over the delay. By mid-July, Abbasi’s citizenship application had been approved.

Although Abbasi’s solicitor only sent a warning letter, some file judicial review applications for their clients, meaning that the Department of Justice gets served with court papers.

When that happens, the department usually settles out of court, say solicitors. Then, it promises to deliver a decision sharpish and conditions the applicant and their solicitor not to discuss the case and how it was settled ever again.

Solicitors say that when the department settles immigration cases out of court, it helps their clients reach closure quickly, but the broader issues that triggered their cases remain unresolved.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice didn’t say whether it considers policy reform based on the issues highlighted in cases it settles out of court. But they said it considers court judgments when drawing up policies.

“The Department considers any relevant judgments made by the Courts in the formulation of immigration policies and when implementing changes, when required, to processes within the immigration service,” they said.

Settling Cases

From the start of 2019 to 30 September 2021, the Department of Justice settled 463 judicial review challenges out of court, at the cost of €8.9 million, its figures show.

A spokesperson didn’t say, though, how many of those cases involved citizenship delays.

The Justice Department’s Immigration Service Delivery has received a little over 1,200 judicial reviews during the years 2019 until the end of October 2021, its figures show.

But the spokesperson for the Department of Justice said the figure was not directly comparable with its figures for cases it had settled out-of-court, during the same period.

“The figure for settled cases include cases that were lodged in previous years but then settled in the year in question,” they said.

Stephen Kirwan, an associate solicitor at the law firm KOD Lyons, says that for citizenship-processing delays, he’d usually suggest the judicial review route if an applicant has been waiting for two years or more.

Imran Khurshid, a solicitor at the IK and Co. law firm, says something similar. “If the delay is more than two years, I say, you know, you can take the matter to court if you want.”

Solicitors take the case to a judge and seek permission for judicial review. If granted, the government gets served with legal letters, says Kirwan.

And usually in his experience, the Department of Justice settles the cases, issuing a decision. “It’s the most common way,” said Kirwan.

He says that most immigration cases, citizenship delay or not, won’t make it to the High Court.

“We take up a lot of reviews, and only one or two of them get a hearing, most of them are settled in advance,” Kirwan says.

Abbasi says he had already waited six years to get a favourable decision on his asylum case, and the idea of waiting a long time for citizenship weighed upon him.

It’s easier to travel with a passport, says Abbasi, and that was another reason he was restless to get his.

Otherwise, travelling brought public embarrassment at the airport as some airlines refused to recognise travel documents, he says.

“It was horrible to travel with a travel document, and I have subsidiary protection, not refugee status. It’s much better to travel with refugee status,” says Abbasi, raising his eyebrows.

The Department of Justice is currently processing more than 22,000 citizenship applications, James Browne TD of Fianna Fáil, who is Minister of State in the Department of Justice, said in the Dáil last month.

“This includes 14,800 applicants who have been in the system for more than 12 months,” he said.

In mid-October, the Department of Justice had updated its immigration website to say that the average processing time for a straightforward application is about 23 months.

An earlier version of the page, as captured on 9 October, had the general timeframe to be 12 months.

Browne told the Dáil that the department aims to cut the average wait time for citizenship decisions to between six and nine months by 2022.

“I understand people’s frustration,” he said. “We are putting measures in place to try to reform the entire system. That is going to take time.”

Khurshid, the solicitor at IK and Co., says delays can be especially frustrating when one family member gets a decision while the other is still left in limbo.

“I have a married couple as my clients. The wife’s application was approved, I think two months ago. The husband’s application is still pending and it’s been more than two years,” he said.

“And he’s a little bit, you know, frustrated that wife has got it, and am I still waiting,” said Khurshid.

A Personal Outcome

As the issue of citizenship-application processing delays persists, Kirwan says getting a decision by lawyering up and striking a deal with the Justice Department doesn’t solve the broader issue.

But it’s complicated not to settle. He said it’s rare for clients to refuse a settlement offer from the Justice Department and decide to take the issue to court so that a judgment influences policy “for the greater good”.

But he doesn’t blame clients for that, he says. “You’re the one sticking your neck on the line, you’re risking a cost order, and in some cases, you have to pay stamp duty.”

“What I’m saying is that clients care about themselves,” says Kirwan, “and that’s the way it should be”.

The confidentiality condition stopping them from discussing their cases won’t help address the wider issue either, says Kirwan, but the Department of Justice would have been unwilling to settle without it.

And that’s a favourable outcome for his clients, he says. “I think transparency is a good thing, but having said that, the state is less likely to give you a settlement when it’s going to be published online anyway, or it’s going to be in the newspaper.”

“I’m wondering for my clients, would I be able to get a good deal for them, then? You know, and you have to remember litigation is expensive and is not legally aided,” he says.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice didn’t respond to queries about the confidentiality clause on its settlement agreements.

Not Looking Back

But not everyone is willing to take the legal route either.

Khurshid says he has had clients waiting seven years for a decision, but some are scared to challenge the Department of Justice in court.

“Because there is a huge risk of losing the case, and if you lose it, a cost order is made against you, you have to pay that,” says Khurshid. “Many people are scared.”

Many are also unaware that the option is available to them, he says. “It isn’t common knowledge.”

For Abbasi, trusting his solicitor to send an ultimatum to the Department of Justice is a decision he doesn’t regret.

On top of six years of waiting in direct provision, he said, he worked as a rickshaw puller for drunken revellers who often racially abused him, and the experiences scarred him.

Now with a positive decision on his citizenship application, he feels like a man a somewhat unburdened. “I feel like I have freedom now,” he says, laughing.

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Shamim Malekmian: Shamim Malekmian covers the immigration beat for Dublin Inquirer. Reach her at [email protected]

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