A secret Home Office policy to detain people with the right to live in the UK at air and seaports has been found to be unlawful in the high court.
The policy applied to those with unpaid NHS debts and was only uncovered through evidence gathered from charities and lawyers fighting the cases of two mothers who were repeatedly detained.
The women were held at ports when trying to re-enter the UK after trips abroad to visit family, because they had outstanding debts to the NHS for maternity care – debts which Home Office was aware of when granting them leave to remain in the UK.
While the women were only detained with their children for short periods they did not know when they would be released.
Border Force officials detained and investigated them because they were flagged on the Home Office system as having unpaid NHS debts.
In a judgment handed down today Mr Justice Chamberlain found that the two women and their young children were falsely imprisoned by the home secretary without justification. He also found that Suella Braverman had breached her duty to consider the equality impact of the policy on women, who are known to be disproportionately affected by NHS charging.
The Home Office was asked during the course of the case to confirm the policy existed and publish it, but refused to do so. It has now finally disclosed the policy and said it is being rewritten.
The women who brought the case are from Mali and Albania respectively. The woman from Mali is a survivor of FGM and ran up NHS debts due to several miscarriages and a stillbirth. Her debt is being challenged due to her being a victim of FGM. The Albanian woman is paying off her NHS debt.
Ruling in the women’s favour the judge found the Home Office’s unpublished policy to stop people at air and seaports was unlawful.
In his ruling he said: “If such a policy is not published, there is a danger that a practice will develop … which can only be discerned by piecing together the accounts given by a large number of individuals to their respective lawyers. The result may be that large numbers of people are unlawfully detained before the practice can be identified and the illegality exposed.
“By that time, however, it is likely that it had been applied to a very large number of people. It would have been much better for all concerned if the policy had been published and its illegality recognised earlier.”
Both women welcomed the judgment. The Albanian woman, who was detained at least eight times, said: “I was detained with my children every time we travelled home to see my family for the last eight years. It made us dread approaching immigration control as we just did not know how long they would hold us or even if they would let us through.
“I am really relieved that the judge agreed with us that the officers cannot use detention powers in this way. I welcome the Home Office’s decision to change its policy for people like me who have been living lawfully in the UK for years and who just want to be able to return home.”
Janet Farrell, of Bhatt Murphy Solicitors, who represented both the women, said: “The detention of our clients was humiliating and distressing. This judgment shows how vital it is that policies concerning the use of coercive powers such as detention are published so victims can hold the government to account in court in a meaningful way.”
The Home Office has been approached for comment.