THE BLOG

Even in Guantanamo They Have Lawyers

10/05/2013 12:39 BST | Updated 10/07/2013 10:12 BST
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I remember when Nigel Farage was a clown. How we laughed before last election day when his Ukip banner caused him to crash his light aircraft. No-one is laughing now.

Ukip won no seats at that election, of course. Just as they have won no seats since. Yet this week's Queen's Speech shows that, even without policies, Farage is starting to shape Britain in his image. For some migrants, that Britain will look a little like Guantanamo Bay.

The Queen's Speech contains the government's latest set of proposals for dismantling the UK's world-renowned system of free legal advice, and its principle that justice should not be only for the rich. Inevitably, those most excluded from justice will be migrants.

If the Government's plans go ahead, everyone not lawfully resident in the UK will lose the right to legal aid, unless they are going through the asylum system. This is a perfect candidate for a UKIP policy - why should immigrants come here and use public money to use our legal system?

But the actions of the Government mean that immigrants often have rather pressing needs to go to court. Because they are locked up without trial in immigration detention, for example. Under the proposals, most migrants held in detention centres stand to lose the right to a free lawyer. People who do not speak English, who have mental health problems, or who simply cannot negotiate the UK's byzantine immigration law, will have no-one to help them to challenge their detention.

The UK is almost unique amongst developed countries in having no time limit on detention and routinely detaining immigrants for years because of their immigration status. Many cannot be deported, because their countries are too dangerous or will not accept them back. Some have lived lawfully in the UK for decades and have British partners and children, but have lost their status because of criminal offences, or because the Home Office has decided that they are 'not conducive to the public good.'

At present, after a couple of years in a high-security detention centre, most people are able to get lawyers to bring unlawful detention actions in the courts. Britain may not have legal limits on the power of the state to lock up migrants, but we have courts that are prepared to condemn arbritrary detention. No need of the European Court here - indefinite detention without prospect of deportation breaches British law, the 1971 Immigration Act.

Without legal aid, none of this will happen. Your detention may be clearly unlawful, but you will not be able to access the law.

Arbitrary indefinite detention without a lawyer happens frequently in dictatorships, but not in wealthy democracies. Even in Guantanamo they have lawyers.

I think of the people I know who got out of detention thanks to a legally aided lawyer. I think of Amin, found by the High Court to have been detained unlawfully for four years and 11 months. Or of B., who was so mentally unwell when we met him that he couldn't form sentences. After a few months in detention, he stopped eating altogether because he didn't think that he needed food. Rather than release him to hospital, a senior UKBA official began working on a media strategy for his imminent death. His lawyer took his case to the High Court, which ordered his immediate release, condemning the "callous indifference" of the Home Office.

Without legal aid, they would not have been released.

Unless the Government can be persuaded to change tack, this is what Farage's Britain will look like: unrestrained state power to lock you up indefinitely. As long as you are an immigrant.