Earlier this year, Public Interest Lawyers succeeded in a judicial review claim on behalf of two single mothers and their young families. Reetha Suppiah, Sakinat Bello and their children challenged the UK Border Agency’s policy of child detention and argued that their own detention at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in February 2010 breached their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights as well as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The High Court ruled their detention unlawful and stressed that child detention must only be employed in ‘exceptional’ circumstances.
At the time the claim was being litigated, some argued that it had become somewhat academic. The Liberal Democrats had, after all, within days of the 2010 General Election, secured a promise that child detention – a “moral outrage” according to Nick Clegg – would be brought to a hasty end.
It was clear to PIL when we received the new Government’s response to our invitation for it to concede this case, that what the Tories and Lib Dems were saying in public and what the Home Office was actually planning for were very different things. Sure enough, the deadline for ending child detention slipped again and again and the new promise made in December 2010 was a considerably watered-down version. Still, only “a few dozen families” would be detained, and “usually for less than 24 hours and only where logistics or safety makes pre-departure accommodation unworkable.” It sounded like a system that, although still hanging on to tool of child detention, was at least based on exceptionality.
Yet the figures obtained by the Children’s Society this week show the true position almost exactly a year after the Suppiah and Others case was heard and reassurances were given to the Court as to the ‘last-resort’ nature of child detention and the serious steps being taken to limit it in future. Seven hundred children were detained by UKBA in just four months from May to August 2011.
Given the numbers, it seems highly questionable whether child detention is indeed being operated by this Government only in “exceptional” cases. One wonders in how many of those cases was there perhaps “not a shred of evidence”, as in the Suppiah case, of compliance with the Home Secretary’s primary duty to safeguard the well-being of the child in question.
Once again the High Court may well be called upon to measure UKBA’s practice against the important legal standards of which it fell so dismally short in February 2010. Mr Justice Wyn Williams said in January that it was too early to be able to say that the Home Secretary’s child detention policy carried an “unacceptable risk” of unlawfulness. A year on, the reality is much clearer.
Solicitor, Public Interest Lawyers