Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has been beta testing a new Citizenship Portal which enables future new Canadians to submit their citizenship applications electronically. The ability to submit applications electronically should help reduce backlogs and speed up processing by removing the bottleneck caused by IRCC having to manually scan applications as they arrive in the mailroom. Electronically submitted applications can also more easily be resubmitted if found to be incomplete. For these reasons applications submitted through the Citizenship Portal are likely to be processed faster.
Under normal circumstances, the modernization of Canada’s immigration system at a time of historic backlogs should be celebrated. Regrettably, however, the creation of this portal is problematic since IRCC has once more made the deliberate choice to exclude those assisted by counsel. The beta version of the portal explicitly excluded all applicants who were represented by an authorized representative. Today, IRCC has amended the instructions on the Citizenship Portal, to permit applicants who are being assisted by a lawyer to use the portal, with one very large caveat.
Representatives are still not permitted to actually access the portal, input data, upload documents, or review applications for their client. IRCC’s expectation appears to be that representatives would screenshare while an applicant inputs the data and uploads the supporting documents themselves. The representative would have to rely on screenshots or what they are able to see via screensharing to ensure that the information is accurate. There is no way for a representative to ensure that the applicant has uploaded the correct supporting documents.
This latest iteration of the IRCC beta Citizenship Portal only does lip service to including counsel while still excluding them from actually being able to properly represent applicants and ensure that a complete and accurate application has been submitted. It also ensures that clients who need the most assistance, who do not have the language skills or technological savvy to use the portal on their own, are not able to benefit from this improved submission method. The courts understand the benefits representatives bring to their clients and the efficient operation of the justice system; why does IRCC not understand the benefits of including counsel?
From a representative’s perspective, the time involved in having to screenshare and talk an applicant through completing an application on their own, and the resulting additional expense to clients cannot be justified. Applicants share the most private details of their lives with their representatives, and so there is no reason that applicants should not be permitted to share their login credentials with their counsel provided there is a way that applicants can advise IRCC that they have used a representative, for example by including a Use of Representative Form (IMM5476), and requiring that clients confirm within the application that they and not the representative have reviewed and signed off on the information being submitted.
Authorized representatives had been promised that a representative portal for citizenship would be available early in 2022. However, it now appears that a representative portal will not be available any time soon. This means that applicants who are represented will either not be able to benefit from the new electronic portal, and will have to submit a paper application, or they will have to complete their applications largely on their own.
CILA also wishes to stress that Canadian citizenship applicants voluntarily choose to hire immigration lawyers. As anyone that has gone through the process before will tell you, applying for, and gaining Canadian citizenship is a defining life moment.
Due to the magnitude of this event, many citizenship applicants choose to hire an immigration lawyer for competent and professional representation. They hire a lawyer they can trust to submit a complete and accurate application to IRCC so that they can gain Canadian citizenship as quickly as possible. They understand fully that any error or omission in their application can delay the citizenship application process by months, or even worse, years. Hiring a lawyer that is familiar with the legal requirements, the forms and the documents needed not only offers peace of mind for an applicant but helps to ensure that the application is processed without delay and is ultimately successful. Using legal counsel conserves valuable department resources so that applications are not filed prematurely and are complete on submission.
At the end of the day, the exclusion of counsel is an access to justice issue. However, there is also a significant operational consideration at stake. Canada is currently grappling with a backlog of some 1.8 million applications, of which some 468,000 are Canadian citizenship applicants. It is in everyone’s best interests for IRCC to receive complete and accurate applications. As we all know too well, however, errors and omissions do occur during the application process which creates additional work and stress for all involved parties. In this vein, it is imperative for IRCC to see counsel as an ally in the shared pursuit of a fast and efficient immigration system. Enabling immigration lawyers to submit Canadian citizenship applications online increases the likelihood that IRCC will be able to render a decision at the first possible opportunity, and reduces the likelihood of unnecessary delays for clients and additional work for IRCC.
CILA expresses its disappointment that IRCC continues to exclude counsel despite a multitude of conversations and correspondence between the immigration bar and the department on this very issue throughout 2021. CILA has submitted letters to IRCC on this matter on August 5, August 18, and October 27. Prior to that, the immigration bar has raised alarm on this matter, including in spring 2021 on how the exclusion of counsel would prejudice those looking to apply to the time-limited TR to PR pathways. The crux of the matter here is that IRCC continues to make the choice to disadvantage its own clients.
CILA wishes to offer two major recommendations to IRCC. First, keep your clients front-and-centre of all your modernization initiatives. Having a client-centric view will allow you to unveil modernizations which are inclusive to as many of your clients as possible at the outset, and avoids the creation of a two-tiered system, where some are disadvantaged. Second, consult with as many stakeholders as possible before going live with modernization initiatives; this includes beta testing portals with all stakeholders. Representatives are more effectively able to identify issues with new systems than applicants who only have experience with one application. Canada has a vibrant immigration ecosystem with plenty of stakeholders that can provide IRCC with beneficial guidance that will allow the department’s modernization efforts to be as successful as possible. Again, this will represent a win-win for both IRCC and its clients, including during life-defining events such as the Canadian citizenship uptake process.