Human Rights, Public Law, Asylum & Immigration

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The Guardian, 8 April 2006

A high court judge yesterday accused the Home Office of disregarding the rule of law in trying to “spirit away” an immigrant couple it illegally detained then tried to deport.

Mr Justice Munby delivered some of the most stringent criticism the government has faced from the judiciary over the removal of asylum seekers.

The judge said at the high court in London a Serb and his pregnant wife were entitled to compensation after they were detained for 15 days, which he branded “oppressive”. Predrag Karas and Stanislava Milandinovic were detained for 15 days in October 2004 after they were arrested following a decision to deport them back to Croatia. Mr Karas’s claim for asylum was initially refused and he reapplied on compassionate grounds. Ms Milandinovic entered Britain first as an au pair and then was granted a student visa.

They were arrested on the evening of October 11 2004 at their west London home by immigration officials and told they would be deported the next day. They were stopped from calling their solicitors. The judge said the couple’s detention was “oppressive, unreasonable and unnecessary”.

Mr Justice Munby said: “What the present case and others like it reveal is at best an unacceptable disregard by the Home Office of the rule of law – at worst an unacceptable disdain by the Home Office for the rule of law, which is as depressing as it ought to be concerning.”

The court heard that the Home Office’s removal decision letter was not sent to their solicitors until 4.16pm on the afternoon before their planned removal.

The couple’s solicitors were not told their clients would be deported the following morning, but the letter merely contained the “formulaic” statement that “steps will now be taken” to remove them.

The judge said he was “driven to the conclusion” that steps were “indeed taken in a planned and methodical way” to “minimise” the couple’s chances of being able to contact their solicitors and apply to a judge to prevent their removal.

“It is no thanks to the secretary of state or his minions that the claimants were in fact able to make contact with their solicitors at 1.30am, some five hours after they had been detained and only some six hours before they were due to be removed.

“It is no thanks to the secretary of state or his minions that the solicitors were able to stop the process in its tracks.”

The judge accused the Home Office of trying to get the couple out of Britain before they could get proper legal advice: “I am driven to conclude that the claimants’ detention was deliberately planned with a view to what in my judgment was a collateral and improper purpose – the spiriting away of the claimants before there was likely to be time for them to obtain and act upon legal advice or apply to the court. That purpose was improper. It was unlawful. And in my judgment it renders the decision itself unlawful.”

The attempt to remove the couple was halted after Ms Milandinovic lodged a claim for asylum.

In court the Home Office said the detention of the couple was lawful as they were about to be removed from the country and detention was “reasonably proportionate in order to achieve an orderly and speedy removal”.

The couple’s damages will be assessed at a further hearing. The Home Office was unable to comment last night.