Detention Centre Abuse Victims win battle against the Home Office for effective Public Inquiry

In a powerful judgment handed down today Mrs Justice May ruled that the government’s proposed inquiry into mistreatment and abuse of detainees at Brook House Immigration Removal Centre by private security firm G4S officers will not comply with Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right not to be subjected to torture, inhuman or degrading treatment).

A BBC panorama documentary “Undercover: Britain’s Immigration Secrets” broadcast in September 2017 exposed racism, physical assaults and shocking abuse of vulnerable detainees by officers. The footage showed one officer strangling a detainee and threatening to put him “to sleep” and detention and healthcare staff conspiring to cover it up. The detainee was a young asylum seeker with severe mental health problems whom officers were supposed to be watching over because of a high risk of suicide and self-harm.

In other footage a control and restraint trainer is seen teaching officers to use racist language, to assault detainees and to “scrub the CCTV”.

Two ex-detainees, MA and BB, who featured on the documentary, brought this claim for judicial review arguing that an independent public enquiry with the power to compel and question witnesses is necessary to get to the truth so that lessons will be learnt as required for the UK to comply with its obligations under Article 3.

Having resisted for over a year the Home Office in October 2018 performed a U-turn and agreed to appoint the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) to undertake an independent bespoke investigation but then refused to provide the PPO with powers to compel witnesses to attend or the means to hold hearings in public and offered no funding for legal representation for victims to enable their participation.

In her judgment today Mrs Justice May held that the Home Office are failing to meet their duties to hold an effective investigation. She ruled that the investigation would need powers to compel witnesses, that a “significant public scrutiny of the PPO’s Special Investigation will be required” and that MA and BB must be afforded funded representation.  She described the “The egregious nature of the breaches, the multiplicity and regularity of the abusive events and the openness of the activity within the unitsrepeated events, in front of others, where the perpetrators were managers and trainers, as well as ordinary officers….”.

On the need for compulsion of witnesses she said:

“..…immigration detainees are a uniquely vulnerable group of people. They are not convicted persons serving a sentence, they are not being detained as punishment.  Unlike most prisoners, they do not know for how long they are going to be confined.  Detention under these conditions is diminishing and depersonalising enough, but it is unacceptably degrading and dehumanising where there is repeated and apparently casual abuse on the part of staff employed by the state to supervise and look after such detainees. It is right, in those circumstances, to afford the abused detainee an opportunity to see and confront their abuser on equal terms, as a means of restoring dignity and respect to the person from whom it has been so wholly stripped away.

On the requirement that some hearings be held in public she commented strongly:

A detention centre, with its population of vulnerable persons, is a place where erosion of the rule of law may be thought to be both particularly likely and (because of that) particularly dangerous…..detainees are frequently subject to hostile political and media rhetoric; the public at large do not in general care about welfare in detention.  In those circumstances it may be thought to be of especial importance that detainees’ rights should be publicly vindicated and the rule of law thus publicly upheld.”

And on the need for MA and BB to have funding for legal representation she said:

“When dignity and humanity has been stripped one purpose of an effective investigation must be to restore what has been taken away through identifying and confronting those responsible, so far as it is possible……. if MA and BB are properly to identify and confront the abuse which they say was meted out to them…. they need representation, which must be funded.”

Joanna Thomson representing BB said,

“The victims at Brook House suffered dreadful inhuman and degrading treatment. They have also suffered the injustice of the government’s failure to comply with its legal duty to hold an effective inquiry. This important judgment should now lead to an investigation that will uncover the truth so that there are no further abuse scandals in the UK’s immigration removal centres. Unfortunately the Home Office indicates it may appeal. This is difficult to reconcile with their stated desire to learn lessons and an appeal risk adding yet more delay and when the events shown in Panorama occurred two years ago. It is to be hoped that the Home Office will accept the judgment so that the long overdue inquiry can commence.”

BB said,

“This case has forced me to re-live some of the most painful times in my life, and today’s judgment is a huge relief. The abuse shown on Panorama wasn’t even half of what really went on. It was every day and we were trapped in there, never knowing when it would end or when we would be released. I was worried that the voices of the victims would never be heard. I was worried the truth would never come out. It stops me sleeping at night because there are people still in there and the whole system is to blame.  But now we will have a proper inquiry. I brought this case because people need to know the truth about immigration detention. I hope that’s what will happen now.”

BB is represented by Joanna Thomson and Mark Hylands of Deighton Pierce Glynn instructing barristers Nick Armstrong of Matrix Chambers and Jesse Nicholls of Doughty Street Chambers.

MA is represented by Lewis Kett of Duncan Lewis instructing Stephanie Harrison of Garden Court and Alex Goodman of Landmark Chambers.

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