The Home Office is being urged to ensure people facing deportation have adequate access to legal advice prior to their removal after tens of Jamaican nationals were taken off a charter flight following a last-minute legal intervention.
Thirteen people were forcibly removed from the UK to Jamaica flight in the early hours of Wednesday, while up to 37 others who had been due to fly were taken off the flight hours before it was due to leave after new evidence was presented to the Home Office supporting their case.
Immigration minister Chris Philp accused the lawyers who intervened in their cases of using “last-minute tactics”, repeating claims by home secretary Priti Patel in recent months that “activist lawyers” intentionally wait until the eleventh hour to seek to “delay and disrupt” returns.
However, immigration lawyers and those who were removed from the flight said that barriers to accessing quality legal advice and a lack of access to communication while in detention had forced them to mount legal challenges in the eleventh hour.
Legal experts said the volume of challenges to removal also highlighted a lack of “due process” in the way deportations are carried out, describing a “broken system”.
Ian Anderson, who was taken off the flight in the final hours, told The Independent he had struggled to communicate with his lawyer from Brook House removal centre due to problems with the phone reception and delays accessing a computer when he needed to receive or send emails regarding his legal case.
“The barrister emailed me a letter about my case on Monday but I couldn’t get into the IT room. The officers kept saying it was too crowded. They said I’d have to wait until 3pm the next day, but that was the day before the flight,” he said.
“The phone cuts out; the access isn’t there. There’s only one printer and one fax machine in the wing. Everything is like a barrier. They should provide things to people to allow them to connect with lawyers and their families.”
The 44-year-old, who spent three and a half years in jail for drug offences - a conviction he said he was appealing - was granted a last-minute reprieve in part on the grounds that he has three British children, one of whom he had been due to take in from care. The day after his son had been due to move into his home, he was detained and served a deportation order.
The Jamaican national’s partner, 41, said she had been working to fight his deportation from the day he was detained in mid-November, to the point where she was so stressed she “couldn’t eat or sleep”.
“These two weeks have been horrible. When he was detained, I didn’t have a clue about lawyers. I started from zero. I didn’t know if the solicitor was good or not,” she said.
“To make it harder, Ian couldn’t access his emails. Every single time I was speaking to him the phone they gave him it was cutting off, or you couldn’t hear anything at all.”
Another man due to be deported was informed moments before the charter flight took off, when he was already on it, that he had been granted a last-minute reprieve.
The Jamaican national, 57, was taken off the flight after evidence of the role he plays in caring for his five children – aged 21, 20, 14, 11 and three – was presented to the Home Office.
The man, who has been in the UK for 27 years and lives with his wife of 24 years and all of his children, was sentenced to prison in 2012 for substance abuse after developing a drug addiction. During his time in jail he became clean, and has been trying to resolve his immigration status since he was released in 2014.
He and his wife – who is mother to his five children – had paid a solicitor £2,000 to fight his deportation. He told The Independent: “When we got on the plane I was so petrified and frightened to see so many officers already there.
“Then two guys who looked like police came on and looked at me and said ‘take this guy off the plane’. I thought, ‘God is great’. If the flight had left two minutes earlier, I would have been going to Jamaica.”
He added: “Other men should’ve been taken off that flight. They were in similar situations to me. They had kids too. I am so lucky that my wife did the research and got it sorted.
“They throw a blanket over us, that everyone is a murderer, a rapist. That’s the stigma they create.”
His wife said: “There’s a lack of access to legal advice. I had to educate myself on a lot of things. The government complains about last-minute claims, but some people haven’t got a choice.”
Immigration barrister Eric Fripp said cuts to legal aid in recent years meant many people facing deportation were only able to change to a better lawyer once they’re placed in detention – where preparing evidence is more difficult.
“There are substantial legal aid desserts [..,] and the Home Office moves people around a lot when they are in the detention estate, so they often they don’t have access to legal advice de facto,” he said.
Bella Sankey, director at Detention Action, echoed his comments, saying: “Last-minute legal claims aren’t a game played by people facing deportation. They’re the result of the Home Office’s failure to ensure access to good legal advice in detention centres, and the removal of legal aid for the parents and children whose lives they’re ruining.”
Opposition MPs had called for the charter flight to Jamaica to be halted, as part of a wider demand for the Home Office to reconsider deportations until the recommendations of the Windrush Lessons Learned Review have been implemented in full.
Although a number of people were taken off the flight, the Home Office fought off a last-minute legal challenge over its deportation practice and policy, in which the claimants were seeking to halt the removal of any parent of British children due to be deported to Jamaica where the interests of the child have not been properly assessed.
Amer Zaman, immigration solicitor and director at Cranbrook Legal, said that while legal aid cuts and lack of access to decent legal advice were “major factors” in the large volume of legal challenges, they were consequences of a “broken” deportation system.
“We’ve got a judiciary which is independent. If a lawyer goes to the court and presents an argument on behalf of a client and the judge also hears from the Home Office and then grants in the client’s favour, then that just means the law doesn’t sit with the Home Office,” he said.
“And if this is happening repeatedly, then clearly the Home Office is wrong. You can’t keep repeatedly saying these lawyers are ‘activist lawyers’ and ‘lefty lawyers’ when you’re in charge of affecting what the law is. Make your law just and accessible, and then you won’t have this stuff going on at 1am.”
“Not every person will be successful, but everyone needs to be given a fair shot, a fair assessment. We need due process and our system doesn’t have that at the moment.”
Sonia Lenegan, legal director at the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association (ILPA), said: “Lawyers play such a crucial role in assisting the Home Office to make more effective decisions. The Home Office should be supportive of lawyers and be working to facilitate early access to legal advice if they really do want to operate a firm but fair system.”
Regarding concerns around access to phone signal and the internet, a Home Office spokesperson said: “All those in detention have access to landline phones, computer facilities, fax machines and are provided with a mobile phone all of which are working and available for use.
“The network signal in the immigration removal centre is operating normally and today detained individuals have been making calls via mobile phones and accessing the computer room.”