A secretive Home Office policy of detaining people with the right to stay at airports and ports in the UK has been found illegal in the High Court.
The policy applies to people with unpaid NHS debts and was only exposed through evidence gathered from charities and lawyers fighting the cases of two mothers who were repeatedly detained.
Women were held at ports when trying to re-enter the UK after overseas trips to visit family because they had outstanding debts to the NHS for maternity care – debts the Home Office knew about that he was given leave to remain in Britain.
While the women were only briefly detained with their children, they did not know when they would be released.
Border Force officers detained and investigated him because he was flagged on the Home Office system as having an unpaid NHS debt.
In a judgment delivered today, Mr Justice Chamberlain found that two women and their young children had been wrongfully imprisoned by the Home Secretary without justification. They also found that Suella Braverman had breached her duty to consider the policy’s equality impact on women, who are known to be disproportionately affected by NHS charging.
During the course of the case the Home Office was asked to confirm the existence of the policy and to publish it, but refused to do so. It has now finally revealed the policy and said it is being rewritten.
The women bringing the cases are from Mali and Albania respectively. The Malian woman is a survivor of FGM and is saddled with NHS debts due to multiple miscarriages and a stillbirth. Her debt is being challenged for being a victim of FGM. Albanian woman paying off her NHS loan.
Ruling in favor of the women, the judge found that the Home Office’s unpublished policy for detaining people at airports and ports was unlawful.
In his judgment he said: “If such a policy is not published, there is a danger that a practice will develop … which can be seen by clubbing together the accounts given by large numbers of persons to their respective solicitors. This can result in large numbers of people being illegally detained before the practice can be identified and the illegality exposed.
“However, by that time, 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 recognized earlier.
Both women welcomed the decision. The Albanian woman, who has been detained at least eight times, said: “For the past eight years I have been detained along with my children whenever we went home to see my family. It made us dread approaching immigration control because we didn’t know how long they would hold us or even if they would let us through.
“I am really relieved that the judges agreed with us that 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 in the UK for years living in the U.S. legally and who just want to be able to return home.
Janet Farrell of Bhatt Murphy Solicitors, who represented both women, said: “The detention of our clients was humiliating and distressing. This judgment shows how important it is that policies relating to the use of coercive powers such as detention are published so that victims can meaningfully hold the government accountable in court.
A government spokesman said: “The Home Office is carefully considering the implications of the decision. Revised guidance will be updated and published shortly.