The Home Office is being taken to court over claims women at risk of deportation are being refused in-person legal advice. The campaign group Women for Refugee Women are seeking a judicial review over claims women held at Derwentside Immigration Removal Centre have only been able to access legal advice by telephone. This is despite assurances from the Home Office that in-person advice, initially unavailable due to the pandemic, could be accessed ‘on request’. The group say they are unaware of anyone being able to access face to face visits since the centre opened in December.
The charity say that lack of access to in-person legal advice harms women in detention, in particular considering research shows the majority of women in immigration detention are survivors of serious human rights abuses, including torture, rape and trafficking.
They are concerned survivors will have difficulties disclosing what has happened to them to someone they’ve never met, over the phone, and this may have significant negative consequences in terms of their legal case.
Shalini Patel, a Public Law Solicitor at Duncan Lewis Solicitors who are representing the group, said: ‘The Home Secretary’s decision to detain women at Derwentside, despite the issues with access to face-to-face legal advice is extremely concerning. Her own policy recognises that survivors of trafficking and/or gender-based violence may have additional difficulties with self-identifying and disclosing their trauma and yet she has continued with a women’s detention centre, in the knowledge that its location would severely restrict the detainees’ fundamental right to access of justice.’
The Home Office started detaining women at Derwentside in Consett, County Durham in December 2021. The centre opened despite calls from campaigners not to increase the use of secure facilities, calling it ‘cruel and unnecessary’. It has capacity for 84 detainees, and replaces Yarl’s Wood as the main site where women will be detained for immigration purposes.
Women for Refugee Women themselves opposed the use of this particular site due to its remote location in a region that lacks immigration and asylum legal aid providers, meaning women detained there may face ‘significant barriers’ to accessing good quality legal advice.
In November the government cancelled a procurement exercise to source a ‘Detained Duty Advice Scheme’ for Derwentside, stating that they received insufficient compliant bids from prospective providers. They said legal advice would instead be available under ‘contingency arrangements’, including accessing advice via phone.
The case is being brought alongside a separate claim by an individual who struggled to see a solicitor in person before her scheduled removal date. She said: ‘It has been really difficult for me to find legal advice since coming to Derwentside detention centre. I spoke with many employees here about getting a lawyer, but they gave me excuse after excuse, always telling me to come back tomorrow. I was detained in Derwentside for around one and a half weeks before a lawyer took on my case on a Friday afternoon, even though my removal directions were on Monday. I was really struggling and suffering. If I hadn’t received good legal representation, I would have been removed by now and I’m afraid that I would be dead.’
A Home Office spokesperson said: ‘Derwentside immigration removal centre opened during a global pandemic and our priority throughout has been to take proportionate steps to ensure the safety of residents and staff.