21 June 2012

Theresa May in contempt of court over immigration case

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The Home Secretary Theresa May has been held in contempt of court over the prolonged imprisonment of a foreign criminal, making her only the second home secretary ever to be charged with contempt of court.

UK immigration

Mrs May is only the second home secretary ever to be held in contempt of court.

Judge Barry Cotter, QC, accused Mrs May of 'unacceptable and regrettable behaviour' after ignoring a legal agreement to release Algerian national Aziz Lamari when it became clear that there was no reasonable likelihood of deportation.

Judge Cotter said there has been the 'most regrettable and unacceptable behaviour' on the part of the Home Secretary and held her in contempt of court, which could have resulted in a fine and even imprisonment if Lamari hadn't been released.

Lamari, 22, arrived in the UK in 2009 and quickly applied for asylum. However, after absconding three times within nine months, he was arrested for exposure and robbery. He was convicted and imprisoned until 2010 but was held in detention while the Home Office attempted to have him returned to Algeria.

After the deportation attempts failed, a court hearing in May instructed the Home Office to release Lamari no later than 8, June 2012. However, Lamari remained in detention until 14, June when he was eventually released.

Lamari's solicitors argued that his detention caused significant mental distress and that he had attempted suicide on at least four occasions since April 2011; Judge Cotter ruled that Lamari was entitled to damages as he should not have remained in detention past 23, May.

A spokesperson for the Judicial Office confirmed Mrs May was held in contempt for failing to abide by the judge's ruling but said Mrs May avoided further punishment due to Lamari's eventual release and the severity of the charge itself.

"His Honour Judge Cotter QC found the defendant guilty of contempt for failing to release Aziz Lamari having undertaken to do so," said the spokesperson.

"There was no penalty imposed for the contempt - the finding in itself is serious."

Mrs May's charge marks only the second time a home secretary has been found guilty of contempt of court in British history. Then-Home Secretary Kenneth Baker was found guilty of contempt in court in 1991 after similarly ignoring a judge in an asylum case in a ruling which was backed up by five law lords.

While the Home Office argued that Lamari's 'remarkable history of absconding and serious offending' offered reasonable cause to detain him, solicitors who brought the case against Mrs May believe her strong rhetoric against judges preventing the deportation of foreign criminals encouraged immigration staff to ignore the release order.

"It is regrettable that the Secretary of State's officials decided to refuse their own undertaking," said a spokesperson for Duncan Lewis who brought the case. "We note from their own evidence that this decision was taken after 'senior [UK Border Agency] personnel were consulted.

"We firmly support the decision of the judge. Undertakings are a vital part of the machinery of litigation and save all parties and the Court from the need to exhaustively litigate every last issue. We believe that the finding that the refusal to honour the undertaking was Contempt of Court was in part designed to ensure that there is no future repetition of this conduct on their part.

“We also consider it likely that the Home Secretary's intemperate comments about the Human Rights Act and the perceived failings of the judiciary gave rise to a culture within UKBA in which her officials failed to abide by the rule of law. The instant case is only one, albeit the most serious, example of this behaviour on their part. We consider that they are likely to take their lead from the minister and be influenced by her stance in these matters.”

A spokesperson for the UKBA accepted that Lamari should have been released from detention when deportation became unlikely and confirmed that a review of the case would be carried out.

"Aziz Lamari is a failed asylum seeker who had served custodial sentences for serious offences. He was held in immigration detention awaiting removal to Algeria and we accept that he was not released on the date set by the court, which resulted in yesterday's judgment," said the spokesperson.

"We are reviewing how this happened urgently.”


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