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The Department of immigration can cancel your visa in the following circumstances:
- you provided false information on your visa application or entry card
- you have not complied with the condition on your visa
- the circumstances which permitted you to qualify for a visa no longer exist
- you now fail the character test because of your criminal activities.
Visa cancellation is extremely serious. If your visa is cancelled:
- you will become an “unlawful noncitizen” and may placed in immigration detention
- you may be forced to leave Australia
- you may be prevented from returning to Australia for a period or indefinitely.
Visa cancellations under section 501 (character grounds)
The Minister for Immigration has several powers to cancel visas held by non-citizens under the Migration Act 1958 (Cth). The most common powers of cancellation are:
- providing incorrect information [s 109]
- non-compliance with a condition of the visa [s 116]
- character grounds – i.e. failure to pass the character test [s 501]
There are also cancellation powers specific to particular categories of visas (e.g. s 137J which allows for automatic cancellation of a student visa where the visa holder is not complying with their study requirements).
Visa cancellations under section 501 (character grounds)
Under section 501 of the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) a non-citizen’s visa may be refused or cancelled if they do not pass the character test.
The character test is defined under section 501(6) and a person will fail it if they:
- have a substantial criminal record;
- have been convicted of escaping from immigration detention;
- have committed offences whilst in immigration detention;
- have been a member of, or had associations with, an organisation involved in criminal conduct;
- is reasonably suspected of being involved with people smuggling, people trafficking, genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity;
- have convictions for one or more sexually based offences involving a child;
- are the subject of an adverse assessment by ASIO;
- an Interpol notice has been issued from which it would be reasonable to conclude that they present a risk to the Australian community.
The most common cause of failure of the character test is having a substantial criminal record.
Under section 501(7) a person has a substantial criminal record if they have been:
- sentenced to death
- sentenced to life imprisonment
- sentenced to a term of imprisonment for 12 months or more
- acquitted of an offence on the grounds of mental illness and, as a result, detained in a facility or institution
- found by a court not fit to plead and the court has nonetheless made a finding of guilt on the evidence available and they have been detained in a facility or institution
Most non-citizens who fail the character test will do so as a result of having been sentenced to a term of imprisonment for 12 months or more.
As a result of legislative changes in December 2014, the way that a person’s criminal record is determined has changed significantly. Previously there had to be at least one single term of imprisonment of 12 months or more but now, regardless of the length of each individual term of imprisonment, if the total is 12 months or more then this will count as a substantial criminal record.
For example, prior to December 2014, a sentence of 9 months and a subsequent sentence of 3 months for another offence would not constitute as a substantial criminal record as there was no single term of 12 months or more.
Now both sentences would be counted with the result that there has been a total term of imprisonment of 12 months.
Concurrent sentences are now also included when determining the total sentence served.
For example, if a person is serving concurrent sentences the whole of each term is counted towards the total i.e. – Concurrent sentences of 3 months and 9 months = 12 months.
The effect of these changes is that many non-citizens who were previously not caught by the character test now are. If you are a non-citizen who has a substantial criminal record (or who is affected by one of the other provisions of the character test) you should seek legal advice about how the new laws may effect you.
Access to merits review
Depending on the circumstances, a person who has an application for a visa refused or a visa cancelled under section 501 may be able to apply to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) for review of the merits of the decision, or they may only be able to challenge the legality of the decision through the courts. Whether the person can apply for merits review by the AAT depends on whether the decision was made by the Minister personally, or by a delegate of the Minister. A decision made by a delegate (e.g. a DIAC officer) to refuse to grant or to cancel a visa under section 501 is subject to merits review by the AAT, but a decision made by the Minister is not.
When conducting a merits review, the AAT reviews the original decision and determines if it is the correct or preferable decision. The AAT can affirm, vary or set aside the original decision. If it sets the decision aside, it can make a decision itself or remit the decision to the delegate, along with directions or recommendations, for the delegate to make again. However, if the AAT decides not to exercise the power to refuse to grant or to cancel a person’s visa, in certain circumstances the Minister may set the AAT’s decision aside and refuse or cancel the visa.
The Minister also has the power, in certain circumstances, to set aside an original decision made by a DIAC officer under section 501. The Minister can then substitute the original decision (whether that decision was favourable or unfavourable to the applicant or visa holder) with his or her own decision to refuse or cancel the visa. The Minister can do this even if the person has applied to the AAT for review of the delegate’s original decision to refuse or cancel their visa. As noted above, if the Minister personally decides to refuse or cancel a person’s visa, the Minister’s decision is not subject to review by the AAT.
Access to judicial review
All decisions to refuse to grant or to cancel a person’s visa under section 501, whether made by a DIAC officer or by the Minister personally, are subject to judicial review by the Federal Court or the High Court of Australia. Under judicial review, courts are restricted to reviewing the lawfulness of an administrative decision, rather than considering whether it was the correct decision.
If a court finds that a visa refusal or cancellation decision was affected by jurisdictional error, the court can set aside the original decision and return the case to the decision-maker to be reconsidered. For example, this might be the case if the decision-maker failed to take into account primary or other relevant considerations that it was bound to take into account or (to the extent that rules of natural justice apply) carried out its decision-making functions in a way that was unfair to the relevant person.
The Minister’s personal powers to refuse or cancel visas
Given the potentially serious interference with a person’s human rights which can follow from a decision to refuse to grant or to cancel a visa on character grounds, it is concerning that the Minister’s personal, discretionary powers to refuse or cancel a visa on the basis of the character test are very broad, and that the Minister’s decisions are subject to limited review.
As mentioned above, under sections 501, 501A and 501B of the Migration Act the Minister has the power, in certain circumstances to:
- make an initial decision to refuse or cancel a person’s visa
- set aside a decision by a DIAC officer or the AAT not to exercise the power to refuse or cancel a person’s visa, and substitute it with his or her own decision to refuse to grant or to cancel the visa
- set aside a decision by a DIAC officer to refuse or cancel a person’s visa, and substitute it with his or her own refusal or cancellation.
In making these decisions, the Minister is not bound by Direction No. 55. Further, a person cannot apply to the AAT for merits review of any of these Ministerial decisions; they can only challenge the legality of these decisions through judicial review (as explained in the section above).
In some circumstances, the Act provides that the rules of natural justice do not apply to a decision by the Minister, further limiting the potential for review.
The Commission has raised concerns about the extent of the Minister’s discretionary powers under the Migration Act in parliamentary submissions.
For example, in its 2008 submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Migration’s inquiry into immigration detention in Australia, the Commission recommended that the Minister’s powers under section 501 should be reduced, and measures should be put in place to provide for transparent and accountable decision-making processes which are subject to review.
When can a visa be refused or cancelled under section 501?
A two stage decision-making process
There are two stages of the decision-making process under section 501. At the first stage, the Minister or the delegate must consider whether the person passes the character test (referred to as the ‘threshold test for refusal or cancellation’ in the sections below). The character test is set out in subsection 501(6).
If the Minister or the delegate is satisfied that the threshold test under subsection 501(1), (2), or (3) for refusal or cancellation has been met, this triggers the second stage of the decision-making process under section 501. At this stage, the Minister or the delegate must decide whether to exercise their discretion to refuse or cancel the person’s visa.
To guide the decision-making process under section 501, the Minister can give a Direction under section 499 of the Migration Act. The current Ministerial Direction is Direction No. 55, which commenced on 1 September 2012.
Officers of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) making visa cancellation and refusal decisions under subsections 501(1) and (2) must comply with this Direction. The Direction does not apply to visa refusal or cancellation decisions made by the Minister personally. In exercising his or her personal powers, the Minister may refer to the Direction, but he or she is not obliged to follow it.
The threshold test for refusal or cancellation
Refusal or cancellation by the Minister or a delegate under subsections 501(1) or (2).
The Minister may refuse to grant a visa to a person under section 501(1) if the person does not satisfy the Minister that he or she passes the character test.
A person’s visa may be cancelled under section 501(2) of the Migration Act if:
- the Minister reasonably suspects that the person does not pass the character test, and
- the person does not satisfy the Minister that they pass the character test.
The power in subsections 501(1) and 501(2) can be exercised by the Minister personally, or by a delegate of the Minister. In practice, certain DIAC officers usually act as the Minister’s delegates in making such decisions.
Refusal or cancellation by the Minister under subsection 501(3)
The Minister may refuse to grant a visa or may cancel a person’s visa under subsection 501(3) of the Migration Act if:
- the Minister reasonably suspects that the person does not pass the character test and
- the Minister is satisfied that the refusal or cancellation is in the national interest.
This power can only be exercised by the Minister personally. ‘National interest’ is not defined – it is a matter for the Minister to determine what constitutes the national interest in making a decision about whether to refuse or cancel a person’s visa.
It is also important to note the Minister’s personal powers under sections 501A and 501B of the Migration Act. These powers enable the Minister to set aside an initial decision by a delegate or the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in relation to refusal or cancellation under section 501, and substitute it with his or her own decision to refuse or cancel the visa on character grounds.
The character test
Section 501 of the Migration Act provides that a person does not pass the character test if they fall within any of the grounds specified in subsections 501(6)(a) to (d). These grounds can be grouped into five broad categories:
- substantial criminal record
- conviction for immigration detention offences
- association with persons suspected of engaging in criminal conduct
- past and present criminal or general conduct
- significant risk of particular types of future conduct.
Further guidance on the interpretation and application of these grounds is contained in Direction No. 55. Each of these categories is discussed briefly below.
Substantial criminal record – A person will not pass the character test if they have a ‘substantial criminal record’, as defined in subsection 501(7). For the purposes of the character test, a person has a ‘substantial criminal record’ if they have been:
- sentenced to death or to imprisonment for life
- sentenced to imprisonment for 12 months or more
- sentenced to two or more terms of imprisonment where the total of these terms is two years or more
- acquitted of an offence on the grounds of unsoundness of mind or insanity, and as a result they have been detained in a facility or institution.
A person who has a ‘substantial criminal record’ will automatically fail the character test, regardless of any mitigating factors which attended their offending. However, mitigating factors may be taken into account at the second stage under section 501, when the decision-maker is considering whether to exercise the discretion to refuse or cancel the person’s visa.
Conviction for immigration detention offences
In 2011 the character test in section 501 was amended to include additional grounds upon which the Minister or a delegate may decide to refuse to grant, or to cancel, a person’s visa. These amendments to the character test were introduced following disturbances in the Christmas Island and Villawood Immigration Detention Centres in March and April 2011.
Due to these amendments, a person will fail the character test if that person has been convicted of any offence which was committed while the person was in immigration detention, or during or after an escape from immigration detention, before being re-detained. Also, an escape from immigration detention is itself an offence which will result in the person failing the character test under section 501.
The effect of these amendments is that if a person commits an offence while in (or while escaping from) immigration detention, pursuant to subsection 501(6)(aa) or (ab) their criminal behavior will trigger the power in section 501 to refuse or cancel their visa, even if the offence is not serious enough to warrant a sentence of 12 months’ imprisonment (or any period of imprisonment).
Under subsection 501(6)(aa) or (ab) therefore, a lower level of criminality may cause a person to fail the character test, because of the context in which their offence was committed, as compared to the criminality required for a ‘substantial criminal record’ for the purposes of subsection 501(6)(a).
Also, unlike under the ground of ‘past and present criminal or general conduct’ in subsection 501(6)(c) (discussed below), under subsections 501(6)(aa) and (ab) there is no consideration of the severity (or lack thereof) of the offending, or any mitigating circumstances. If an ‘immigration detention offence’ conviction has been recorded, the person will automatically fail the character test.
Association with persons suspected of engaging in criminal conduct
A person does not pass the character test under subsection 501(6)(b) if the person ‘has or has had an association with someone else, or with a group or organisation, whom the Minister reasonably suspects has been or is involved in criminal conduct’.
Direction No. 55 requires that in establishing ‘association’ for the purposes of the character test, decision-makers are to consider:
- the nature of the association
- the degree and frequency of association the person had or has with the individual, group or organisation, and
- the duration of the association.
Direction No. 55 also requires decision-makers to assess whether the person was sympathetic with, supportive of, or involved in the criminal conduct of the person, group or organisation, and directs that ‘mere knowledge of the criminality of the associate is not, in itself, sufficient to establish association’. The association must have some negative bearing upon the person’s character in order for the person to fail the character test on this ground.
Past and present criminal or general conduct
Under subsection 501(6)(c) of the Migration Act, a person does not pass the character test if, having regard to the person’s past and present criminal conduct and/or general conduct, the person is ‘not of good character’.
In considering whether a person is ‘not of good character’, Direction No. 55 requires decision-makers to take into account ‘all the relevant circumstances of the particular case … to obtain a complete picture of the person’s character’, including evidence of ‘recent good behaviour’.
In determining whether a person’s past or present criminal conduct means that they are ‘not of good character’, decision-makers are to consider:
- the nature, severity, frequency and cumulative effect of the offence/s
- any surrounding circumstances which may explain the criminal conduct
- the person’s conduct since the offence/s were committed, including:
- the length of time since the person last engaged in criminal conduct
- any evidence of recidivism or continuing association with criminals; any pattern of similar offences; or any pattern of continued or blatant disregard or contempt for the law
- ‘any conduct which may indicate character reform’.
The consideration under subsection 501(6)(c)(ii) of a person’s past or present general conduct allows the decision-maker to take into account ‘a broader view of a person’s character where convictions may not have been recorded or where the person’s conduct may not have constituted a criminal offence’. In considering this broader view of character, the decision-maker should take into account all relevant circumstances, including evidence of rehabilitation and any relevant periods of good conduct’.
Direction No. 55 sets out the following factors which may be considered in determining whether a person’s past or present general conduct means that they are ‘not of good character’:
- whether the person has been involved in activities which show contempt or disregard for the law or human rights (such as war crimes, crimes against humanity, terrorist activities, drug trafficking, ‘political extremism’, extortion, fraud, or ‘a history of serious breaches of immigration law’)
- whether the person has been removed or deported from Australia or another country, and the circumstances that led to the removal or deportation
- whether the person has been dishonourably discharged or discharged prematurely from the armed forces of another country as the result of disciplinary action in circumstances, or because of conduct, that in Australia would be regarded as serious.
Significant risk of particular types of future conduct
Subsection 501(6)(d) provides that a person does not pass the character test if there is a significant risk that, while in Australia, the person would:
- engage in criminal conduct
- harass, molest, intimidate or stalk another person
- vilify a segment of the Australian community
- incite discord in the Australian community or in a segment of the community or
- represent a danger to the Australian community or to a segment of the community, whether by way of being liable to become involved in activities that are disruptive to, or in violence threatening harm to, that community or segment, or in any other way.
Direction No. 55 provides that these ‘significant risk’ grounds are enlivened if there is evidence suggesting that there is ‘more than a minimal or remote chance that the person, if allowed to enter or remain in Australia, would engage in [the prescribed] conduct’. It is not sufficient to find that the person has engaged in such conduct in the past – there must be a significant risk that the person would engage in such conduct in the future.
Direction No. 55 also states that the operation of the last three grounds of ‘future conduct’ set out above must be balanced against Australia’s ‘well established tradition of free expression’.
The Direction states that these grounds are not intended to be used in order to deny entry or continued stay of persons merely because they hold and are likely to express unpopular opinions, even if those opinions may attract strong expressions of disagreement and condemnation from some elements of the Australian community.
Factors relevant to the exercise of discretion to refuse or cancel a visa
The relevance of Ministerial Direction No. 55 to the exercise of the discretion
As mentioned above, if a person fails to satisfy the Minister or a delegate that he or she passes the character test, the person’s visa is not automatically refused or cancelled. The decision-maker must decide whether to exercise their discretion under section 501 to refuse or cancel the person’s visa.
In making that decision, the Minister’s delegate is required to consider a number of factors, as set out in Direction No. 55. Part A of the Direction sets out a range of primary considerations and other considerations which must be taken into account (where relevant) when deciding whether to cancel a visa. Part B of the Direction sets out those primary and other considerations which must be taken into account when deciding whether to refuse a visa application. An overview of these considerations is provided below.
In addition to taking into account the considerations in Part A or Part B, the Direction requires the decision-maker, to ‘determine whether the risk of future harm by a non-citizen is unacceptable’. To assess this, the decision-maker is required to undertake a balancing exercise and to consider ‘the likelihood of any future harm, the extent of the potential harm if it should occur, and the extent to which, if at all, any risk of future harm should be tolerated by the Australian community’.
Although the Direction sets out primary and other considerations which must be considered by DIAC officers in exercising their discretion, it does not dictate outcomes. Also, as noted above, the Minister is under no obligation to follow the Direction when making a personal decision to refuse or cancel a visa on character grounds under section 501.
Direction No. 55 provides that in deciding whether to refuse or cancel a person’s visa under section 501, the following primary considerations must be taken into account:
- the protection of the Australian community from criminal or other serious conduct
- the best interests of minor children in Australia
- whether Australia owes international non-refoulement obligations to the person (under the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention), the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
When considering whether to cancel a visa, the decision-maker must take into account the additional primary considerations of ‘the strength, duration and nature of the person’s ties to Australia’.
Direction No. 55 sets out a range of other considerations that may be relevant and, if so, must be taken into account in determining whether to refuse or cancel a visa under section 501. These considerations are generally to be given less weight than the primary considerations set out above. These other considerations include the impact of refusal or cancellation on:
- the person’s immediate family in Australia (if those family members are Australian citizens, permanent residents, or people who have a right to remain in Australia indefinitely);
- Australian business interests
- members of the Australian community, including victims of the person’s criminal behaviour and those victims’ families.
Again, in the case of cancellation of a visa (rather than refusal) there is an additional consideration, that is ‘the extent of any impediments that the person may face if removed from Australia to their home country, in establishing themselves and maintaining basic living standards’ in light of:
- the person’s age and health
- any substantial language or cultural barriers, and
- any ‘social, medical and/or economic support available to them in that country’.
The Department must notify you that it is considering cancelling your visa, and it must then consider your response expired before cancelling your visa. Time limits apply – if you do not respond within the period allowed you will lose your opportunity to make submissions. You must contact one of our experienced immigration lawyers as soon as you become aware that the Department is thinking about cancelling your visa.
If your visa has already been cancelled, you may be able to have a Tribunal or Court review the decision. Again strict time limits apply so contact us immediately for assistance.
We know that it is critical for you to put in a comprehensive response quickly and will give your matter priority, especially where your student visa has been cancelled.
We are able to quickly prepare a detailed response that will give you the best chance of being allowed to stay in Australia, even if it is alleged that you provided false information to the Department, did not comply with the condition on your visa etc.
Recently our immigration lawyers have successfully resisted visa cancellations where our clients have provided false information to the Department and/or have committed very serious criminal offences.
Calculating the time limit to apply for a review in the AAT
There is a very short and strict time limit to apply for a review to the AAT (9 days).
The time limit of 9 days is from the date you were deemed to be notified of the decision. It is important to know that this is not always the date that you received your Notice of Visa Cancellation or heard about it.
The amount of time you have to lodge your application depends on how you received the Notice of Visa Cancellation. It will depend on the date you are deemed to have been notified of the decision to cancel your visa. This may be different to the date on the Notice.
If the Notice of Visa Cancellation was posted to you
The date you are deemed to have been notified of the decision is 7 working days (don’t count Saturday and Sunday or any public holiday) from the date on the Notice.
You then have 9 days (including Saturday and Sunday) from the date you are deemed to have been notified to lodge your Application to the AAT. If this date falls on a weekend or public holiday, then you can lodge your application on the next working day.
If you received the Notice of Visa Cancellation by hand, fax or email
The date you are deemed to have been notified of the decision is the day after it was handed, faxed or emailed to you.
You have 9 days (including Saturday and Sunday) from the date you are deemed to have been notified to lodge your Application to the AAT. If this date falls on a weekend or public holiday, then you can lodge your application on the next working day.
You cannot ask for extra time to make an application for review, unless there was something wrong with the Notice of Visa Cancellation itself or the way that you received it.
This does not happen very often but if you think it might have happened to you get legal advice immediately.
Going to the AAT
You will be given a File Number by the AAT when you lodge your Application for review. It will have the year when you lodged your application and another number – for example: 2011/1234. You should give your file number whenever you contact the AAT. This will make it easier for them to find out about your case.
After you have lodged your Application, there are very strict time limits for you to provide more evidence or information to support your appeal. It is very difficult to get extensions. This is because the AAT must make a decision within 84 days of the date you are deemed to have been notified of the decision to cancel your visa. If the AAT does not make a decision within the 84 days, the decision to cancel your visa will automatically be “affirmed”. This means that the AAT will not be able to change DIAC’s decision and your visa will remain cancelled.
The directions hearing
The first thing that will happen is a directions hearing.
At the directions hearing, an officer of the AAT will:
- explain the process;
- make sure you understand what you need to do to get ready for the final hearing;
- make sure you understand when you need to provide your written evidence; and
- set a date for the final hearing.
The directions hearing will probably be held by telephone and is usually short. Sometimes there are legal issues that also need to be dealt with at the directions hearing. DIAC will be represented by a lawyer at the AAT. You should get the contact details of DIAC’s lawyer so that you can send your evidence to them.
The final hearing is where the AAT will consider all the evidence. It is advisable to attend the hearing. You might be able to do this by telephone if you cannot go in person, but it is best to attend in person.
The AAT will either:
- affirm (or confirm) the decision to cancel your visa; or
- overturn the decision, and give you back your visa.
The AAT must make its decision within 84 days of the date you are deemed to have been notified of the decision.
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