The Foreign Office, whether you like it or not, must feature, as they are the lead British body.
Today, like every other public service body, the FCO has been subject to numerous cuts and has subsequently lost much of its corporate knowledge and experience.
If you consider yourself to be a ‘victim’ of the FCO’s consular support, you may think any alternative is a good thing. I doubt it - until a better alternative is invented.
The structure (and quality) of a typical consular section within an embassy or high commission or consulate general or consulate varies, is strained and is under threat.
Typically, consular staff range in numbers from perhaps one person to a section of two full-time officers. I am not including an ambassador or his/her deputy, for whom consular work accounts for 10% of their role according to their job descriptions.
If you are lucky, you may encounter a highly experienced officer who has done the job across the world and dealt with a number of high-profile cases. Or it might be a locally engaged (LE) member of staff with her finger on the pulse who speaks the local language, understands the politics and knows the right contacts. Such people are gold dust and in reality run the section.
I have the highest regard for the quality LE staff I worked with in my postings. Remember that the LE staff will usually be locals who live permanently in that country. Two thirds of FCO staff overseas are locally engaged staff, not British diplomats.
All ‘normal’ diplomats are generalist civil servants. None are consular legal experts. Although the number of cases, the complexity of cases and the demand for involvement are increasing, much of the consular work nowadays is done from London.
The level of push and then of fight in your consular case will absolutely depend upon the personalities and experience of the staff at your embassy or other overseas diplomatic mission.
Consular work is all about personalities, knowing the right ear to whisper in and when and how to lobby. That is often what diplomacy is.
Unfortunately, there is now sometimes a lack of confidence, experience and willingness to do what was at one time more commonplace. But you may be lucky.
Bear in mind that the UK is under no general obligation under domestic or international law to provide consular assistance to its nationals abroad, though UK courts have recognised that in certain circumstances, individuals may have a legitimate expectation that certain actions are taken by the state.
Generally, there is no legal right to consular assistance. All assistance provided is at the Foreign Office’s discretion.
The level of legal knowledge of the local law inside a typical diplomatic mission is often zero. It’s not supposed to amount to much in any case.
The FCO widely and constantly advertise the fact that they in theory don’t intervene in local judicial cases, and they certainly do not pretend to give legal advice. None of the diplomats/staff are practising lawyers, and certainly none are qualified locally. Few speak the language.
This one is a complete non-starter. Don’t expect a thing in this regard. The FCO is totally honest about this. Of course, they do consular work all the time and the locally engaged consular staff certainly have a good idea, but they may not want to tell you much.
The embassy will give you a list of their local lawyers. You do need to hire a local lawyer. Your local embassy will give you their list of lawyers and sometimes their list of translators/interpreters. Both come with the usual denial-of-responsibility caveats.
Traditionally, in years gone past, such lists were mostly centred on catering to British businessmen who had local commercial disputes. Nowadays, consular hotspots like Thailand, the Philippines, Jamaica and Spain have really considered what they are producing. Looking at your list to find only commercial lawyers when what you really need is a lawyer specialising in criminal defence should now be a thing of the past. You should also use open source searches to identify specialisms and lawyer expertise.
However, we continue to learn of terrible stories of inefficient local lawyers’ lists. There is another lawyer – the honorary legal adviser (HLA) – whom each Head of Mission engages with. They are often inherited from the Head of Mission’s predecessor. This honorific professional and personal relationship usually means that an older, respected, highly commercial local lawyer gives quiet advice to the ambassador and sometimes the embassy as a body. Don’t expect to be able to approach the HLA or for the HLA to be an expert in anything, other than commercial law.
The quality of your chosen local lawyer is likely to be variable. We have worked with the good, the bad and the ugly. Bear in mind they're not going to, in all likelyhood, know English or Scottish law, their level of English may be erratic, and the culture gap between what you expect and what they can deliver can be enormous. You have to remember that you are in another country with different laws, norms and ethics.
This will be a vital point that you will quickly learn: there can be a vast difference between British justice and procedures and those of jurisdictions outside of Britain. I mean really very different. Often shockingly unfair and different. And the local lawyer you have had to hire, in the face of a foreign judiciary that may be broken, will be barely able to do much.
Some consular cases result in the families going through numerous local lawyers in order to find a good one who is proactive. Lawyers can leave clients uninformed for months on end and are difficult to contact. Add to that the language and culture gaps and you have the perfect storm of confusion, frustration and delay.
The crux of this guidance is about getting the embassy/FCO to help you.
That means first you (and they) have to know (or be reminded of) what their own internal rulebook – their own FCO guidance – says.
You can access most of their guidance here on the gov.uk website. Some of it is redacted.
I also quote some of the most important bits here on this website, which you can also access through the site's navigation under FCO Guidance (there are two parts, named pt.1 and pt.2).
Remember that this is the FCO talking among themselves!
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