The attacks on immigration lawyers must stop

Tomos Owen

It was recently announced that a man had been charged with terrorism offences for a far-right attack at the offices of Duncan Lewis Solicitors in Harrow. The man had entered the firm in September brandishing a knife and threatened to kill a member of staff. The prosecution now allege that he was planning to take a solicitor hostage and fly both the Nazi flag and that of the US Confederacy, both of which were in his possession, from their office. What is clear is that the target of Duncan Lewis Solicitors was not random and it is alleged that this target was chosen because of their work in preventing the removal of immigrants from the UK. This appears to be the violent culmination of months of anti-lawyer rhetoric coming directly from the UK government.

In the months leading up to the attack, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has been on the offensive against, in her own words, “lefty lawyers” and “do gooders”. She has repeatedly suggested that some lawyers have been frustrating the removal of immigrants from the UK, a point which she believes warrants an overhaul of the current immigration system. What seems to have been lost on the Home Secretary is that removals are only ever stopped by a judge if it appears that the deportation would have been unlawful or if an individual did not receive adequate access to justice. 

Ironically, despite protestations from the Home Secretary suggesting that some lawyers are taking advantage of a broken immigration system, it was a Home Office policy that has been in place since 2015 and enabled the deportation of numerous individuals that was recently deemed unlawful by the Court of Appeal. This was a policy which gave individuals just 72 hours to make representations of their right to be in the UK, after which they could be deported at any time in the following three months without notice. This had serious implications for access to justice, a key principle of the rule of law which underpins fairness in our society. In many cases, individuals simply did not have the time or resources to access legal advice and put a legitimate case together as to why they should not be deported. 

To understand why lawyers are acting to prevent deportations, you need only examine the actions of the Home Office and the human rights principles that underpin deportations. A state does not have total freedom to deport individuals and they must complete their due diligence to ensure that if deportation occurs the individual would not be subject to torture, inhumane or degrading treatment and other irreparable damage. This principle, known as non-refoulement,  applies to individuals that have seen their asylum claims rejected and those that are in the UK unlawfully. The Home Office is obliged to ensure that this principle is followed and that their actions do not infringe on an individual’s human rights. 

Unsurprisingly, many of the recent actions of the Home Office have fallen short of this standard. In one of the most recent examples, a judge stopped the deportation of 20 asylum seekers to Spain which the Home Office sought as they had previously passed through that country. These types of deportations are not uncommon because of Dublin III regulations which allows one European country to return asylum seekers to another if there is proof that they passed through. The logic behind this regulation is to try and prevent asylum seekers picking and choosing where they end up, although on a continent where the immigration systems differ markedly this does little to deter most asylum seekers travelling to a country they believe would treat them the best. In travelling to the UK, this appeared to be the case for those 20 asylum seekers as the court found there was clear evidence that if they were sent back to Spain they would be left destitute. They knew this because an earlier group of 11 Syrians had been deported to Spain by the Home Office, only to be kicked out of the airport in Madrid and left on the streets without food or water. This is what would have awaited a further 20 asylum seekers if the court had not intervened. It is also worth noting some of these individuals had been subject to torture and were suffering from PTSD, a point which clearly did not worry the Home Office. 

The result of the court case was a massive win for humanity and because of it 20 individuals avoided what looked to be impending homelessness. The response from the Home Secretary was anything but humane. In describing the outcome of the case Priti Patel said, “We are bitterly disappointed with the court’s ruling, which has prevented us from returning people who have no right to be here. This case has not abated our determination, and we have more flights planned in the coming weeks and months.” This demonstrates the contempt that the Home Secretary has for the lives of some individuals. Even though the individuals were in the UK unlawfully, it is not normal to react with this level of frustration when a court prevents you from deporting people to likely destitution. It is almost beyond comprehension that anyone could be so callous, let alone the Home Secretary of the United Kingdom. 

The audacity of the Home Secretary to suggest that it is a certain number of lawyers that are the problem is bewildering. Without the work of lawyers preventing these deportations there would clearly be a massive scope for injustice and a great deal of harm would be caused. All the while there is a clear solution for the Home Secretary; if there was nothing unlawful or untoward about the actions of the Home Office in certain cases there would be no need for lawyers to act to prevent deportations. Despite this, the comments of the Home Secretary suggest that she is determined to carry on with the same course of action as we have already seen. This brings us back to the beginning of this article. Rather than changing course, the Home Secretary has tried to paint immigration lawyers as the enemy and somehow agents of the left side of the political spectrum in the UK. This is simply untrue and immigration lawyers are doing what they have always done by upholding the laws of this country and international human rights principles. 

Given that the words of the Home Secretary now appear to have incited violence, these attacks on the legal industry must stop. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be stopped by the Prime Minister given his own comments suggesting that the criminal justice system is, “being hamstrung by lefty human rights lawyers”. This had led to 800 figures from the legal industry writing to Boris Johnson and Priti Patel urging them to cease the attacks. This included former Supreme Court justices and numerous QCs and academics. The letter claimed that the attacks, “endanger not only the personal safety of lawyers and others working for the justice system, as has recently been vividly seen; they undermine the rule of law which ministers and lawyers alike are duty bound to uphold.” There have also been similar calls from some of the Conservative frontbench. The Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland, and the Attorney General, Suella Braverman, both called on Priti Patel to stop the attacks of the legal profession following the far-right attack at Duncan Lewis Solicitors. 

Whether these calls will do anything to abate the crusade against immigration lawyers is yet to be seen. If you consider that Priti Patel has continued to make comments even after the Metropolitan police terrorism unit warned her about the far-right nature of the incident at Duncan Lewis Solicitors, it seems unlikely. What must be clear is that immigration lawyers involved with this work are doing their utmost to protect the values of this country and the rule of law, a principle that has been in place for centuries before this government and will be in place for centuries after it.  

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