Asylum seekers who arrived in the UK by crossing the English Channel can claim compensation after immigration officials unlawfully confiscated their mobile phones, the High Court ruled.
Judges said a “failure of governance” at the Home Office led to “robust denials” being wrongly made in High Court proceedings about the existence of an unlawful blanket policy of taking mobile phones.
Lord Justice Edis said: “We are concerned with a failure of governance which allowed an unlawful policy to operate for an unknown period of time before November 2020.”
Anyone whose mobile phone was seized between April and November 2020 after crossing the English Channel may be eligible for compensation. That is believed to be about 1,300 people.
Three people, who cannot be identified, won a legal challenge against the home secretary in March after it was admitted their mobile phones were unlawfully taken from them and other people crossing in small boats.
After the three issued their claims at the High Court in London, lawyers acting for the Home Office repeatedly denied there was a blanket policy and asserted that it was lawful to seize mobile phones from some asylum claimants.
The Home Office later realised such a blanket policy had been in operation during the relevant period and, after “very significant concessions” were made on behalf of the department, Lord Justice Edis and Justice Lane ruled in favour of the three.
They were separately arrested after being intercepted at sea on small boats between April and September 2020. Officials confiscated their property at Tug Haven in Dover, Kent.
In their March ruling, judges said there was an “apparent failure” by the then home secretary Priti Patel — for which she had apologised “to comply with her duty of candour” when responding to the claims.
Lord Justice Edis said the factors that led to the error being made included the great pressure staff were under dealing with small boat crossings, media scrutiny, legal process and the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.
He said documents seen by the court showed that those at the Home Office who were dealing with the High Court claims, as well as those responsible for applying the policy, “failed to prioritise the need to ensure that everything that was done was lawful”.
This meant, he said, that the policies being applied at the time were “ad hoc” and were not clearly understood by those applying them, nor clearly recorded, which made it “more difficult than it should have been to communicate accurately and quickly what those policies were”.
The judge said it was “very surprising” that the mistake was not reported because some of those working on the legal challenges were also, at around the same time, drawing up a change in the policy — to ensure it was not applied indiscriminately to every migrant — which took effect in November 2020.