(Queen's Bench Division (Administrative Court); Blake J; 18 September 2009)
The unaccompanied Afghan sought asylum, claiming to be 15 years old; he had with him an identity document. The document confirmed the age of the asylum-seeker and was apparently authentic.
The local authority accepted that the asylum seeker was a child, but concluded that he was 17 years old. In their conclusions, the social workers stated that they 'found the birth certificate as not authentic', casting doubt upon it because it had not been issued at the date of birth. After the child sought judicial review, the social workers retracted their comments about the document, acknowledging that they had no expertise in this area. The legal challenge prompted the authority to conduct a review interview; however, this review confirmed the original age assessment.
Both the original decision and the review decision were quashed; any re-determination must follow good practice. The first decision as to the child's age had been flawed because of a material failure to understand the nature of, authenticity of and assistance provided by the document, in a case of admitted doubt. The document had not been a birth certificate, but an identity document; government guidelines made it clear that in Afghanistan birth certificates were very rare, whereas about 70% of Afghans had identity documents. As an identity certificate it did not purport to record birth contemporaneously, and could hardly be dismissed for authenticity for that reason. If, as eventually claimed, the social workers had not in fact intended to throw doubt on the authenticity of the document, it was very difficult to see how the social workers applying the required caution and giving the child the benefit of the doubt could have reached the conclusion that he was 17 years old.
Physical appearance alone was a notoriously unreliable basis for age assessments, and in this case it seemed that it was accepted that the child looked young; the real basis for the social workers' assessment seemed to have been the child's 'demeanour'. That was on any view fragile material to weigh conclusively in the balance against the age the child claimed to be.
The review interview and the subsequent writing up of the assessment had not followed best practice, in that: the child had not been asked if he wanted an independent adult present; although he had had both a litigation friend and a solicitor, neither had been aware of the interview; the review had involved two of same people who had produced the original assessment; there had been a two-month gap between the interview and the writing up of the assessment; alleged inconsistencies in his account had not been put to the child. The fairness of the process had thereby been seriously undermined.