Fast-track deportations from UK 'unlawful'

A failed asylum seeker being escorted onto a plane for removal from the UK Some failed asylum seekers have been removed at very short notice

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The fast-track deportation of foreign nationals refused permission to remain in the UK has been declared unlawful by the High Court.

A judge ruled that the Home Office policy meant people were being given "little or no notice" of removal and were deprived of access to justice.

The policy was challenged by Medical Justice, which provides medical and legal advice to people facing removal.

The Home Office said it was "disappointed" and would appeal.

Medical Justice and the Home Office each laid out their case at a hearing last month, and on Monday Mr Justice Silber ruled that the fast-track policy was "unlawful and must be quashed".

He said those subject to a removal order must have the right to challenge it, but fast-tracking meant it was often not possible to obtain sufficient legal advice in time.

Case study

An Eritrean teenager, known as T, was taken from her home at 4am for removal a few hours later. She ended up in Italy and only once there was she able to contact her UK solicitors. She told them she was living with a male stranger whom she had met on the street. In his judgement, Mr Justice Silber wrote that "she appeared to be in some distress although it was not suggested that she had been molested". He said it was "disturbing that she was removed in circumstances in which it was impossible for her to contact her lawyers."

He said the policy must also be considered in context - many of those affected would have little or no English, would be "heavily stressed" at the prospect of removal and "desperate" to avoid it.

But Mr Justice Silber did give the Home Office permission to appeal against his decision, saying the case raised issues of general public importance, including the constitutional right of access to justice.

'Late-night swoops'

Originally, the Home Office practice was to give those facing deportation 72 hours' notice of removal.

But an "exceptions policy", introduced in March 2007 and widened in January this year, led to some removals happening much faster.

At last month's hearing, Dinah Rose QC, appearing for Medical Justice, said that in some instances immigration officers arrived late at night to escort people to flights leaving only a few hours later.

Home Office lawyers argued that the deportation policy was "sufficiently flexible" to avoid any human rights breaches, and that detainees were given as much notice as possible before removal.

Analysis

Removals can be a messy legal business involving last-ditch injunction applications and frantic calls to officials who may already be escorting an individual onto a plane. It's tense and unpleasant for all involved.

That's why the UK Borders Agency has tried for years to make removals more efficient. Crucially, it wants to avoid trouble at immigration centres, including violence and suicide attempts.

This judgement is a blow to the Home Office - but the High Court has not stopped removals. It has simply underlined that if someone is going to be removed, they should have a brief period to argue one last time that they should stay.

Politicians have long grumbled that some unwanted foreign nationals use that period to cling on by their legal fingertips. But campaigners say the alternative is an inhumane system where people are taken from their beds in the middle of the night.

But BBC home affairs correspondent June Kelly said the court felt the government had failed to bring in adequate safeguards to ensure those deported at very short notice were not put at risk.

Emma Ginn, from Medical Justice, said she was "delighted" at the court's decision.

"Quite apart from the affront to justice, the cost in human misery was a source of shame," she said.

"It feels like UKBA [the UK Border Agency] chanced their arm to see what they could get away with, in the knowledge that many vulnerable victims' voices would not be heard in the middle of the night."

Children

But a Home Office spokesman said: "The policy of making limited exceptions in special circumstances to 72-hour notification of immigration removal has been an important element of our management of removals.

"The government remains committed to removing individuals with no right to be in the UK as quickly as possible."

Fast-track deportation was introduced to deal with certain types of case, such as those involving unaccompanied children who could not be detained before removal and posed a risk of absconding.

It was also applied to individuals thought to be at risk of suicide once given their removal instructions, and instances where reduced notice was deemed necessary "to maintain order and discipline" at a detention centre.

Welcoming the ruling, Donna Covey, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said many people refused asylum in the UK "have serious grounds for appeal if given the chance".

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