The appeal court has upheld Justice Collin’s high court ruling that the Home Secretary was in breach of the human rights convention by denying support to destitute asylum seekers.
On Tuesday 18 March, three appeal court judges led by the Master of Rolls, Lord Phillips, dismissed David Blunkett’s appeal against the earlier high court ruling that the denial of state support to late applicants for asylum would put them at risk to destitution, thus amounting to ‘inhumane and degrading treatment’ – a breach of human rights.
The denial of benefits to asylum seekers who fail to claim asylum ‘as soon as practicable’ was introduced in January under section 55 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. The new section, when implemented, was estimated to be denying food and shelter to nearly 700 refugees per week.
After six test cases were brought last month, Mr Justice Collins gave a judgement that the interpretation and the application of section 55 breached the European Convention on Human rights because the individuals were put at real risk of destitution that could damage their health and safety.
David Blunkett, who said he was fed up with a situation where parliament debated issues and the judges then overturned decisions, asked the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, to conduct the appeal. The Daily Mail and the Daily Express then went on the attack against Justice Collins, a judge who, they said, did not put the British first.
Lord Phillips, sitting with Lord Justice Clarke and Lord Justice Sedley, said: ‘We dismiss these appeals because Collins J was correct to conclude that each of the six decisions under consideration was vitiated as a result of deficiencies in the procedure. The Attorney General told us that these procedures are being radically overhauled. When they have been put in order we can see no reason why section 55 should not operate effectively.’
In their judgement the three judges praised Justice Collins and upheld his conclusion that the secretary of state must lay down a fair system and operate it fairly. They agreed that in each of the individual cases the applicant had been treated unfairly initially.
Furthermore, the judges concluded, ‘The sanction that it imposes may cause the proportion of asylum seekers who claim asylum at the port of entry to rise significantly. Those who claim in country will be at risk of being denied support. This will almost certainly be the fate of those who remain in this country for an appreciable period without claiming asylum. We consider that with careful questioning and appropriate fact checking it should be possible to distinguish these from those who have recently arrived in this country. Where the latter have come by air they will first have to satisfy the Secretary of State’s officials that they had good reason not to claim asylum at the port of arrival. If they do so they will be likely to receive support. If they do not, the Secretary of State will have to consider whether their vulnerability is such that that it is necessary to grant them support in order to avoid the infringement of their rights under Articles 3 and 8 (of the Human Rights Act).’
Many lawyers welcomed the judgement. Ben Hoare, a solicitor for two of the six asylum seekers involved said, ‘No one is above the law in this country, not even the home secretary, and after his intemperate outburst I am reassured that an independent judiciary has helped to protect a vulnerable group of people at a time when there is not always the political will to do so.’
After hearing the judgement, David Pannick QC, for the home secretary, said he would accept the decision and not appeal to the House of Lords and said he was grateful to the judges for having clarified the law.
Despite his legal defeat, Mr Blunkett said he was ‘very pleased that the Court of Appeal has found in my favour on the crucial points of law. This will enable the government to operate the fair but robust asylum support system for which Parliament legislated last year.’
The civil rights group, Liberty, called the ruling a ‘devastating defeat’ for Blunkett which meant the policy of denying asylum seekers welfare or the right to work ‘lay in tatters’.
Habib Rahman, of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said the decision represented ‘a victory for the basic principles of humanity and compassion which the UK has historically extended to all those who are here’.
Immediately after the appeal court ruling, the Home Office announced it was introducing a new fast-track procedure to process asylum claims from next month. The scheme, to be piloted at Harmondsworth removals centre (near Heathrow), will involve detaining 90 asylum seekers at a time while a decision is taken on their case and any subsequent appeal is heard. Those who are rejected will face removal within a month of arrival.