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  • Writer's pictureMelissa Elizabeth Eberly

Recent Trends in Federal Court Decisions Concerning Study Permit Refusals

Happy New Year!

My name is Melissa Elizabeth Eberly, and I am an immigration and family lawyer with Paolucci Law.  Over my years of practice, I have helped many international students come to Canada and to extend their study permits once they are here. 

When applying for a study permit, applicants must satisfy the decision maker that they will leave Canada by the end of the period authorized for their stay, as is set forth under paragraph 216(1)(b) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations (‘Regulations’).  When assessing whether an applicant will leave Canada when they are required to do so, decision makers often consider the applicant’s travel history, their immigration status in their country of residence, family ties to their country of nationality and to Canada, the length of time that they intend to remain in Canada, their employment history, financial ties to their country of nationality, employment prospects and general conditions in their country of nationality, among other factors

Pursuant to section 220 of the Regulations, study permit applicants must demonstrate that they have sufficient funds to cover the costs of their tuition and living expenses while in Canada, in addition to the costs of leaving Canada at the end of their stay, both for themselves and any accompanying family members.

Study permit applicants must also satisfy the decision maker that the program of studies they intend to pursue in Canada aligns with their career goals. 

In my experience, study permit applications are most often refused because the officer is not satisfied that the applicant will leave Canada at the end of their stay.  The decision maker’s finding could be based on a combination of the factors outlined above.  Often, decision makers refuse applications because they have concerns about the a combination of the applicant’s intended program of studies, their family ties to Canada and their country of nationality, and their financial resources.

Over the course of the holiday season, I searched the Federal Court of Canada website for all the decisions concerning study permit refusals between November 1, 2023, and January 1, 2024.  In total, I reviewed 21 decisions.  In two of those decisions, the applicants were nationals of Nigeria, and in the other 19 decisions, the applicants were nationals of Iran.  In 3 of the decisions, the Federal Court dismissed the application, which means that the Federal Court found that the decision to refuse the applicant’s study permit was reasonable.  In 18 of the decisions, the Federal Court granted the application, which means that the Federal Court found that the decision to refuse the applicant’s study permit was unreasonable, the decision was set aside, and the application was returned to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to be re-determined by a different decision maker.

When I was reading through these decisions, I tried to note any trends in the circumstances of the applicants.  Although the applicants were only from two countries and mostly from Iran, I wondered if there was anything else that was similar about the applicants which could explain why their applications had been refused.  For example, was the applicant married or unmarried?  A child, youth, young adult or older adult?  Accompanied or unaccompanied by a spouse and/or dependent(s) and/or parent(s)?  Did the applicant already have a high level of education?  Intend to study at the elementary, secondary or post-secondary level?  If the applicant was intending to study at the post-secondary level, did the applicant plan to attend college or university?  Did the applicant intend to pursue a Bachelor, Master’s or postgraduate diploma?  Even though I only reviewed 21 decisions, the circumstances of the applicants varied greatly, and I didn’t notice a trend.  Old or young, married or unmarried, accompanied or unaccompanied, highly educated or not, all these circumstances were represented in this sample of study permit applications which were refused by IRCC.

That being said, there was a strong trend in the way that decision makers assessed these applications, namely by providing reasons that failed to account for and/and engage with all of the evidence provided in the application, resulting in an unreasonable decision.

The Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) in Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v. Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65 explains what is required in order for a decision to be reasonable.  While extensive reasons are not required in all cases, including in the context of study permit applications, decision makers must nonetheless adequately demonstrate through their reasons why the application was refused.  While decision makers are not required to specifically address all evidence provided by the applicant in their reasons, if evidence is provided by the applicant that contradicts the conclusions made by the decision maker, then this evidence should not be overlooked in the reasons.  Otherwise, the decision will be set aside by the Federal Court for failing to demonstrate that the decision maker considered and engaged with the evidence provided in the study permit application.

Failing to consider and engage with all the evidence provided in the study permit application was one of the primary reasons why the Federal Court granted the applications.  To quote some of the decisions:

[3] The determinative issue is whether the Officer ignored or misconstrued the evidence in coming to their determination that Ms. Matouri does not have significant family ties outside Canada and that the purpose of her visit is not consistent with a temporary stay. I have reviewed these issues on a reasonableness standard of review (Canada (Minister of Citizenship and Immigration) v Vavilov, 2019 SCC 65 [Vavilov] at para 23). I am granting the application because there are significant shortcomings on central issues in the Officer’s evaluation of the evidence.

[6] I find that the Officer’s errors, when taken individually, may not warrant the Court’s intervention. When the Decisions are considered holistically, however, I am satisfied that the cumulative errors in the study permit Decision in particular point to unreasonableness, in that they raise doubts regarding whether the Officer turned their mind to the evidence on record.

[8] I determine that the Officer failed to mention, explain or weigh the Principal Applicant’s family ties in Iran. The Officer’s finding that the Principal Applicant did not demonstrate establishment in Iran is not justified, in my view, because the Officer ignored evidence contradictory to this finding and failed to explain how they weighed this evidence in assessing the Applicants’ family ties and establishment.

[9] I further find that the Officer’s reasoning is not indicative of a holistic review or weighing of all the evidence, rather than simply considering the negative factors described in the GCMS notes.

[14] The Applicant clearly showed that his entire family was in Iran, including his wife, parents and three siblings. He also specified that his wife’s career was in Iran as well as his – along with a promotion waiting on his return – were in Iran. The wife’s decision not to accompany him was consistent with this. Furthermore, the Applicant had made submission on his aging parents who rely mainly on him to support them. The Officer did not engage with any of this and did not offer any analysis.

[14] A reasonable decision is one that is justified in light of the facts: Vavilov at para 126. The decision maker must take the evidentiary record and the general factual matrix that bears on the decision into account and the decision must be reasonable in light of them: Ibid. When considered in light of the information in Ms. Shahba’s study permit application, it appears that the Officer disregarded or misconstrued relevant information and evidence.

This trend reflects a tension in the international student program in Canada.  Canada requires study permit applicants to submit to detailed and well-documented applications that demonstrate how they meet all the requirements for a study permit.  In many cases, the checklist of documents that study permit applicants are required to submit can span more than one form and be several pages in length, in some cases requiring police certificates, language test results and proof of accommodation arrangements in addition to the ordinary documentary requirements for a study permit application.  At the same time, decision makers face a high volume of applications with little time to assess each one, and it appears that decision makers may be struggling to conduct a holistic review of study permit applications before making a decision.

When IRCC refuses a study permit application, applicants are ordinarily provided with a decision letter which explains that the application has been refused, but not why.  As a result, the decision letter should not be confused with the reasons for the decision, which are the decision maker’s notes explaining why the application was refused. 

If your study permit application has been refused, you can obtain the reasons for the decision by filing an Application for Leave and for Judicial Review with the Federal Court within a certain period of time and request the reasons for the decision, called a Rule 9 request.  Once the reasons are received, you may want to consider whether the decision maker’s reasons demonstrate that the decision maker has considered all the evidence provided in the application.

If you have questions about Canada’s international student program, I would be happy to help.


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