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How is the new Sopra Steria/UKVCAS system shaping up?

Since changes were made by the Home Office (in partnership with the company Sopra Steria) from November 2018 to the way most immigration applications are submitted how have those changes fared for applicants and practitioners alike?

Firstly, there is no need to keep checking that the form has remained the same since it was first downloaded and ahead of submitting it. Many forms are now online versions only that have been greatly simplified since their bulky and excessive predecessors.

Whilst the forms are simpler there are a handful of teething problems largely involving the drafting of those forms especially once downloaded as PDFs for review or else once submitted. Problems have included document checklists specifying unnecessary documents such as, “birth certificates of both of John Smith’s parents” whereas it should read, “birth certificates showing both of John Smith’s parents”. Similarly, drafts have failed to download the full list of items being ticked, “No” under the suitability requirements and generally the non-mandatory questions may not download on the draft meaning that clients should still need to be guided through some of the questions verbally.

Secondly, “originals” are now not always needed. Caution should still be exercised as a poor and grainy facsimiled image of, say, a degree certificate original of which is thousands of miles away may still attract the attention of the caseworkers who could request sight of the same. One of the biggest pluses is being able to rely on printed-out bank statements from online banking facilities or in-branch machines rather than always requesting “originals” from that bank.

Applicants who are being legally represented can benefit from sending emails to their representatives attaching most of the documents electronically and which can eventually be uploaded on to the client’s Sopra Steria account ahead of a biometrics enrolment appointment where they need to at least bring passports and existing biometric residence permit cards as applicable.

The Sopra Steria account itself is largely easy to use and intuitive although there have been problems in being able to log in to the system, becoming locked out of accounts including when attempting to first activate them (and annoyingly requiring an access code that is active for only 30 minutes and can only be generated to the one email address associated with the applicant without being able to amend that).

Overall this is welcome progress from the days of Home Office refusals being based simply on a few missing “originals” and accompanied with a line stating, “we cannot be sure that the document was altered in the copying process”. Again, caution should still be exercised as originals should always be available should they be requested.

The booking process for what are now called “super priority” service appointments has also improved in that there is wider availability that is not restricted solely to a few regional centres but is greatly more localised. The downside is that in reality decisions are not made on the same day and applicants occasionally find themselves waiting up to five days for a decision which in the past could have merited a refund of the (currently £610) premium fee. Similarly, the mark-up on any given biometric enrolment now varies from the minimum £19.20 to up to £260.00 depending on the location, date and time which can be a heavy cost on an applicant already paying a lot for their application and Immigration Health Surcharge.

Presumably in time the system will settle in to more routine for the partnership company involved with their own administration and systems becoming streamlined and adapted to the task of processing many different types of application. This could include an even easier way to actually upload documents which currently requires a tedious amount of individually isolating documents in files, labelling them, ensuring they have been uploaded in to sometimes arbitrary folders on the Sopra Steria account and then labelling them again once uploaded. Furthermore, you cannot actually re-open that file once uploaded although it can be deleted.

More updates on this and other aspects to immigration law practice to come.

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