Interview With Former Immigration Tribunal Judge, Mr Paul Gulbenkian
Paul is a founder member of the Immigration Law Practitioners Association (ILPA) and President of the European Immigration lawyers Group. He is also a member of the International Association of Refugee Law Judges and is highly recommended by the Legal 500.
Thank you for talking to us Paul. Let’s start from the beginning; why did you decide to make your career in the law?
Well, that is quite a story in itself. Law was in the family. My Grandfather was a well-known lawyer in Turkey, he practised for the Ottoman bank and the British Government. My father also trained to be a lawyer but had to flee Turkey in 1915 during the Armenian genocide.
When he came to the UK, my father could not practice law as he needed to earn money straight away to support his family. However, he was determined that I should have access to the opportunities that eluded him and carry on the family tradition. However, I fell in love with music and wanted to be a violinist.
At the age of 15, I was offered a position at the National Youth Orchestra, having completed my grades and was the leader in my school orchestra. Both my parents, but especially my father, were horrified. They insisted on taking me to the career’s master at my school, Mr Tyzack, upon which my father exclaimed his disappointment at my choice of profession and asked Mr Tyzack his opinion on the matter.
Mr Tyzack said to my father, “in all honesty Mr Gulbenkian, there is no chance Paul will ever be a lawyer because he is thick!”
I was happy about this, but as you can imagine, my father was fuming. When we got home my clever mother took me aside and suggested that I continue with the violin but take my O levels and see how I get on.
I then did well in both my O levels and A levels (much to Mr Tyzack’s surprise) and went to university to study law. I loved the subject and I very much took to the student social life. This led to my interest in the violin waning, as to be any good you have to practice about eight hours a day or else your playing resembles a cat being slaughtered.
I still love music deeply, but I am very glad I chose the path I did.
Where did you go after finishing law school?
After getting my LLB, I went on to do my articles with a firm called Lewis & Lewis in London.
Just as I finished my training, the firm was taken over by a much larger practice called Penningtons and I was offered an assistant solicitor’s position. However, I was not happy as the firm had grown too big for my tastes so I moved to a practice called Isadore Goldman in Holborn to become a litigation and family law solicitor.
Because of my Armenian origins many Armenian people living in the UK began coming to me as I was the only lawyer fluent in the language at the time. I began to do Immigration work for them. The Home Office was across the road from my office so I used to take my clients across the road to help them sort out their Immigration matters. Slowly Immigration began to take over my work.
In 1985 I realised that law was becoming more specialised so I decided to focus my practice 100% on Immigration. I set up a practice with Bernard Andonian, in Kensington, called Gulbenkian Andonian and we specialised in Immigration law.
Were there many niche Immigration practices in existence in London at that time?
Very few. Immigration was becoming more difficult and the rules were becoming tighter, especially after the passing of the British nationality Act 1981, it became more difficult to get British Citizenship.
The practice became very successful. Two years after this I was approached by the Chief Immigration Adjudicator after one of the hearings I was involved in and asked me to become an Adjudicator (subsequently known as an Immigration Judge).
I was appointed in 1989 as a part-time adjudicator, allowing me to continue working in my practice.
What were the main issues coming before the Immigration tribunal back then?
Most of the cases at that time were family cases, for example, a British person marrying someone from outside the UK wanting their spouse to be able to enter the country to live with them. At that time, getting a spouse visa was not easy as applicants had to show they were genuinely married. These were known as ‘primary purpose’ cases and took up most of my time as both an Adjudicator and solicitor.
Jumping forward to 2004 when the EU opened up, was this a point where Immigration law changed in the UK?
I would not say it changed dramatically but it certainly changed because of freedom of movement. Before 2004 Bernard and I used to do a lot of work for companies who wanted to recruit people from Europe. For example, one client who ran a technology business identified Bulgaria as a country where you could get highly-trained and talented IT people. The MD and I went to Sheffield to the Work Permit Department and explained to them that we wanted to bring over 100 Bulgarians to do work for the technology company. Rather than me having to apply for separate work permits for all the recruits, we negotiated a deal with the department allowing us to simplify the application process.
Back in those days, setting up a private meeting with the Work Permit Department and hammering out this kind of deal was possible. I very much doubt you could do the same now.
Of course, this type of work finished once the EU was extended and countries such as Poland and Hungary joined. The government completely underestimated the numbers who would come to the UK from these countries to seek opportunities.
I was an advisor to the Immigration Minister at the time, Damian Green and I used to say to him that you are never going to bring Immigration numbers down while you have freedom of movement. It took a long time for Ministers to twig that that was an issue (laughs).
Was it a gradual tightening up of the Immigration rules from that point?
Yes, it was a gradual process.
Were you surprised by Brexit?
Yes, I was surprised at the result. I thought that when the crunch time came, the British people would see the risks of coming out, but I was wrong. It was quite a shock.
How do you anticipate that the Government will deal with the EU nationals living in the UK but also British people living in other EU countries?
Although understandably the government is playing its cards close to its chest, I am sure that when the time comes for us to formally leave the EU, all those who were in the UK before 23rd June 2016 will be allowed to stay here and there will be similar arrangements for the 1.4 million British nationals residing on the Continent. There is a lot of pressure on the Prime Minister to allow EU nationals to remain in the UK after Brexit.
The other issue turns on freedom of movement and whether we impose any restrictions on EU nationals coming into the UK. If we remain in the single market (and a lot of people think we should), then I cannot see how we can reject freedom of movement as the two go together.
However, if we leave the single market and enter into some other arrangement with the EU, we will be able to put in place some controls. I suspect that those controls will comprise of allowing EU migrants who work in industries that rely on EU labour such as hospitality, farming and medicine, being given special exemption or permits to come into the UK. But restrictions might be imposed on other EU migrants who do not have skills that support those particular markets.
The latest Immigration figures that 154,000 of the 336,000 immigrants who entered the UK in the year 2015-2016 came from the EU, which is a massive jump on previous years. How do you think that the government will deal with the possible surge of EU migrants that may occur after Article 50 is triggered in March 2017?
I think those who come into the UK whilst we remain part of the EU are entitled to work and exercise Treaty rights under EU law. I think it would be a gross injustice to allow them in and then demand they leave after our negotiations to exit the bloc are completed. I think those people will be allowed to stay, if not on a permanent basis then at least on a temporary one.
Could the British government legally pass legislation that restricts the rights of those arriving in the UK six months before Article 50 negotiations conclude?
Yes, the government can impose any regulation that they believe is for the benefit of the UK.
How much influence do you think big business and the financial sector will have over Brexit negotiations?
I am sure they will have a big influence. The economy depends on them being able to recruit the talent they need to grow their markets and companies. The government has to balance both business and political interests, which is a big challenge in itself.
Moving away from Brexit, it seems to me at the moment that students are facing a big brunt of the governments push to restrict non-EU Immigration numbers. How do you think this will affect educational institutions and do you think these policies are sensible?
No I do not think it is sensible. I think overseas students play a big part in the future of this country. They pay very high fees, which is a big help to academic institutions and they are a great asset to have.
Looking at the issue of judicial review – now that most of the avenues for appealing Immigration decisions have been closed, how difficult is it for an ordinary person to mount a judicial review challenge?
When I was appointed an Immigration law judge, I gave an undertaking that I would not participate in any appeal work, so my comments can only be made from the point of view of a judge rather than an Immigration solicitor. I believe the biggest challenge with bringing a judicial review is the substantial cost involved. Once you get to court, most of the judges are fantastic and they reach a very fair decision.
Finally, coming back to Brexit, with regards to the current legal challenge and the attack on the judiciary by some newspapers – do you have any thoughts on this?
Well, firstly, with freedom of speech and press, judges can be criticised as readily as anyone else and that is a fundamental freedom of this country. That said, I find some of the comments that were made abhorrent and I am quite disgusted by some of the things that were said about one or two judges, nevertheless, in a democratic country the press and public have every right to state their view.
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