By Owen Bowcott
A fast-track process for deporting failed asylum-seekers, which gives them little or no notice of their immediate removal, is unlawful, the high court ruled today.
The decision will have an impact on Home Office deportation practices and could lead to more last minute, legal challenges on behalf of those fighting to remain in the UK.
The case was brought by Medical Justice, an organisation that provides independent medical and legal advice to detainees in immigration removal centres.
It argued that the practice of deporting "with little or no notice" was unlawful and targeted the most vulnerable groups such as unaccompanied children and those deemed to be at risk of suicide.
Medical Justice claimed that immigration officers had increasingly used the powers to swoop late at night and escort distressed people to flights leaving only a few hours later, depriving them of the chance to speak to a lawyer and launch last-ditch challenges to removal.
Emma Ginn, of Medical Justice, said the UK Border Agency (UKBA) admitted that the fast-track removal process was initially used in 24 cases, but that the figure has now risen to 145. The practice was growing, she said.
"The UKBA were only using it in exceptional circumstances," Ginn said, "for example when they were dealing with unaccompanied children or those at risk of suicide. What's so vile is that it was the most vulnerable who were being targeted by this policy.
"They will now have to give 72 hours notice but since they can give it on a Friday night it will still only provide people subject to immigration controls with one working day's notice of deportation."
Mr Justice Silber, sitting at the high court in London, gave 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.
There is a general Home Office practice of giving those facing deportation 72 hours notice of removal directions.
Today's legal challenge was triggered by an "exceptions policy", introduced by the government in March 2007, and widened in January this year.
The policy creates categories in which an individual can be given little or no notice. The categories include vulnerable people who are at risk of suicide or self-harm, and also children who arrived in the UK unaccompanied and may abscond because they cannot be detained.
Dinah Rose QC, appearing for Medical Justice, said Border Agency officers had used the policy to swoop late at night and escort people to flights leaving only a few hours later.
Home Office lawyers argued at a hearing at the high court last month that the exceptions policy was "sufficiently flexible" to ensure there were no human rights breaches. They said detainees were given as much notice as possible and safeguards had been put in place.
But today, the judge rejected the Home Office case. He said the new policy failed to ensure that those who received reduced periods of notice were able to obtain legal advice before they were removed. He declared: "The policy is unlawful and must be quashed."
Responding to the ruling, the Home Office spokesman said: "We are disappointed with the court's judgment and we will be appealing.
"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."
Refugee Council response to High Court ruling on fast-track deportations
Today the High Court ruled that the UK Border Agency’s policy on deporting foreign nationals who are refused permission to remain in the UK at short notice is unlawful. In response, Donna Covey, Chief Executive of the Refugee Council said:
“We welcome today’s High Court judgement that the UKBA’s policy of removing certain foreign nationals at short notice is unlawful.
“Too many people who are refused asylum here and end up facing removal have been let down by the asylum process, and have serious grounds for appeal if given the chance. It is therefore imperative that asylum seekers have access to good quality legal representation and are given enough time to appeal Home Office decisions - including having notice of the date they are to be removed. Many of these people have fled conflict and war, are extremely vulnerable, and deserve protection.
“The government’s welcome review of the asylum process provides an opportunity to focus on ensuring the right decisions are made about each individual case first time, which would not only avoid a lengthy and costly appeals process, but would ensure those that need protection can access it.”