A human rights charity has lost a court battle after claiming the UK failed to weed out incompetent lawyers giving substandard legal advice to thousands of detained migrants facing deportation.
Campaign group Detention Action alleged that the government had acted unlawfully by failing to properly monitor a scheme that offered 30 minutes of free legal advice to people held in the UK’s seven immigration removal centres.
The detainees were among the most vulnerable migrants in the UK who could have been trafficked, were seeking asylum or had overstayed their visas, according to court documents.
But Detention Action claimed that some of the 46 legal firms paid to operate the scheme had taken “no or few steps” to provide legal advice to thousands of detainees.
It provided figures showing that three quarters of the legal firms involved in the scheme fell short of government targets for following up initial consultations with further action, including pursuing bail for migrants. It blamed the government for monitoring failures.
The group asked the judge to declare that the current contract, in place since 2018, was unlawful and to force the government to take action to ensure the programme was improved.
But Mr Justice Calver said the figures used by the charity were unreliable and a peer review of the 46 legal providers suggested that “by and large” the scheme was operating well.
He said the key question was to assess whether the government’s operation of the programme “creates a real risk of prevention of access to justice for detainees. In my judgment it does not.”
People held at the centres were among some 15,000 immigration detainees in 2020 whose time locked up usually ended with deportation or securing bail after a legal challenge in the courts, according to the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.
The numbers held in detention hit a peak of more than 32,000 in 2015 but fell sharply after 2020 because the Covid-19 crisis forced many detainees to be released on health grounds.
A BBC television investigation in 2017, using secretly-filmed footage, showed a culture of harsh treatment, bullying and widespread drug abuse at Brook House, one of the detention centres near Gatwick Airport.
Ten members of staff at the centre, then run by private security company G4S, either resigned or were sacked in the wake of the programme. Nobody was prosecuted.