European court says UK visa fees illegal

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT may have to repay the visa fees it has been charging foreign spouses of British nationals after the European Court of Justice decided that civil servants had been breaking EC law for almost 20 years.

The court ruled last month that Surinder Singh, an Indian with a British wife, had been the victim of a British failure to interpret European Community directives on the freedom of movement of members of the families of British nationals.

Mr Singh, like the other non- EC partners of British citizens, had been charged a fee of pounds 80 when he came to Britain.

Under instructions from the Home Office, Foreign Office officials in British Consulates took the money for entry clearance fees and on some occasions refused permission for the partner to settle in Britain. By contrast, the EC husband or wife of a UK national is allowed to settle in Britain without cost.

The court ruled that this biased treatment was in breach of EC law on freedom of movement. Foreign husbands and wives should be free to enter Britain provided the couple arrived from an EC country.

Foreign Office lawyers are now studying the ruling that non-EC spouses should be treated as EC spouses. They fear the Foreign Office will have to pay compensation to every victim of the misunderstanding of the directive since Britain joined the Community in 1973. The number of people who could be entitled to compensation is unknown.

The Home Office is now preparing new instructions for entry clearance officers at British Consulates abroad. They are expected to cancel visa fees for non-EC spouses and family members of UK nationals living elsewhere in the community.

Nor do the implications of the Singh judgment end with the refund of visa fees. Another recent judgment of the European Court, in the case of an Italian called Francovich, allows the possibility of monetary compensation for individuals when a member state breaches Community law.

In addition to claims for refunds of fees, those persons who have been affected may also claim in a UK court for reimbursement of other losses arising from the Home Office's misapplication of the EC directives, such as loss of earnings and costs involved in having to stay abroad longer.