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Congolese man unlawfully detained for three and a half years

Congolese man unlawfully detained for three and a half years

To a person in detention, particularly in prison, every day of freedom lost matters and the Defendant needs to be able to justify it. In this case I think that principle became lost to sight.

So says the High Court in the case of Louis v Home Office [2021] EWHC 288 (QB), a depressing false imprisonment claim in which the Home Office was taken to task for its appalling treatment of a vulnerable detainee who was held under immigration powers for over four years.

The court found a multitude of failures going “very well beyond maladministration” that resulted in Mr Louis, a care leaver who arrived in the UK aged 13, being unlawfully detained for 42 of the 51 months he spent in immigration removal centres. 

The case also shows the necessity of an effective system for monitoring detainee welfare on the prison estate, an issue to which the courts are now becoming alert

Background

Sam Louis came to the UK from Belgium in 2003, aged 13. He arrived alone and with nowhere to stay – his brother was initially to support him, but turned his back on Mr Louis when he arrived. The teenager was taken into care by Newham Social Services and supported under the often-misused section 20 of the Children Act 1989, initially as a stopgap while his immigration status was resolved. 

What should have been short-term support under section 20 lasted for another seven years, during which time social workers did little to regularise Mr Louis’ status. Eventually, in the run-up to his 18th birthday, he applied for indefinite leave to remain on human rights grounds but this was ignored by the Home Office.

In 2010 Mr Louis was convicted of robbery and spent nine months in prison, after which the Home Office decided to detain him. In making that decision, officials characterised Mr Louis as a dangerous criminal, despite the offence being described by the trial judge as “relatively spontaneous low-level street robbery”.

A deportation order was only actually issued after he’d been detained for 26 months. 

“Unjustifiable comments”

In his general observations on the case, His Honour Judge Cotter QC writes:

The overriding sense that I have gained from this case is of a lack of any urgency within administrative processes leading to a situation where although months passed without any material progress this was considered acceptable by the Defendant’s employees charged with assessing the need for, and legality of, continuing detention.. the failures, in some cases in isolation and certainly when taken cumulatively, went beyond mere maladministration.

I found the details of the [detention] review process very concerning. The records reveal not only important mistakes and failure to cross reference or acknowledge the existence of outstanding applications/representations, but also repeated failures to adequately read the records, unjustifiable comments, use of stock phrases and inappropriate prejudgment of what the view taken would be even if further evidence was available.

Throughout his detention the Home Office portrayed Mr Louis as dishonest and non-cooperative. The examples were however trivial: one was Mr Louis not remembering the exact spelling of his mother’s name. 

On the subject of his cooperation, the court said:

The Claimant was… characterised within detention reviews as a person who had given “no assistance at all” to the Defendant. However, this is simply not correct. From the very outset of immigration detention he provided information that his name was Sam Louis, he was born in Kinshasa on 5th July 1989 and that he had been in the care of Newham Social Services and that his solicitors had been in touch with the Home Office. 

Despite this steer, the Home Office did not take the “obvious step” of contacting Newham Social Services. Had they done so, immigration officials “would have been aware of the Claimant’s nine years of accommodation in an area of London close to his brother and sister, that he had an outstanding application, made four years previously, for indefinite leave to remain and as a result had an incentive not to abscond”. Instead Mr Louis’s file was littered with “unjustifiable comments” about his attitude and behaviour which could not have been sustained on “any reasonable evaluation of the full history”.

Dishonesty or desperation

Having shown no issues with his mental health while in prison, Mr Louis’s mental health deteriorated in detention. He complained of hearing voices and showed symptoms of psychosis. He was placed on suicide watch for several months in 2012. 

Eventually, in what the court described as an act of desperation, Mr Louis claimed he was not from the Democratic Republic of the Congo after all, and was in fact at risk of persecution in Somalia. The judge had no doubt about the reason for this change of story:

had the Claimant not been in detention, as he should not have been, he would not have claimed to be from Somalia. His desperation at continued detention was the main cause of the lying.

The Home Office instead painted him as “utterly non-compliant”; the incident only served to further justify his detention.  

In April 2014 the DRC authorities finally confirmed Mr Louis as Congolese, essentially the same information Mr Louis had provided when he was first detained in May 2011. Even with his nationality confirmed, the Home Office still failed to act with reasonable diligence. Despite there being no timeframe for an emergency travel document, the Home Office continued to detain him for another 12 months.

Thrown out on the street

In April 2015, following the intervention of Bail for Immigration Detainees, Mr Louis was finally released. In what seems to be a moment of spite, the Home Office put him out on the street late in the evening with no money. Fortunately his sister was able to collect him.

A few months later, Mr Louis was detained again for another three and a half months, despite full compliance with his reporting restrictions. He applied for bail, but was refused due to the bail judge being informed, “wholly incorrectly, that the Claimant was only located by chance and otherwise would still have been at large”. The High Court leaves open the possibility that the tribunal was “deliberately misled”. 

Mr Louis was finally granted bail in January 2016 and his human rights appeal allowed in November 2019, concluding a decade of turmoil.

Appalling mismanagement of vulnerable detainee

This summary does not capture all the Home Office wrongdoing covered in the lengthy factual background. The judgment exposes how officials tried to mask their own lack of progress with unwarranted, perhaps malicious assertions about the claimant’s character and demeanour to justify his ongoing detention.

Cases as extreme as Mr Louis’s are thankfully rare. But where they do occur, it is difficult to see how the courts can remedy the damage done. For Mr Louis, compensation and seeing the Home Office being told off may be enough; more likely it will be little comfort considering the horror he went through for four long years of his life. It raises the question of whether the courts are able to properly sanction the Home Office for failings on this scale.

Larry works at Bhatt Murphy Solicitors. He previously managed the Prisons Project at Bail for Immigration Detainees, and worked as a Senior Caseworker in the immigration department at Wilson Solicitors LLP.

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