Our Yarl's Wood complaint goes to Parliament

Today, the Habeas Corpus Project has filed a complaint to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman through local MP, Keir Starmer QC MP. The complaint is regarding the unlawful and arbitrary prevention of six volunteer solicitors making a legal visit with detainees at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre on 26 November 2015. The Home Office Complaints Department has ignored our original complaint, and attempts to chase up a response three months later. They only responded after 175 days on 20 May 2016 when our local MP, Keir Starmer QC sought the intervention of James Brokenshire, Minister for Immigration. We are extremely dissatisfied with the response and seek remedies as well as a full apology for their delay and the unjustifiable interference with Detention Centre Rules.

Below is the six month late reponse to our complaint:

 

RESPONSE FROM THE HOME OFFICE:

Dear Mr Noor,

I was concerned to receive your complaint dated 27th November 2015 regarding an incident at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) on 26th November.

I have now completed my investigation into your complaint and am pleased to offer the following response.

However before I do so, may I take this opportunity to say how sorry I am that you felt the need to make a complaint and offer my sincere apologies for the delay in providing you with a substantive response. We aim to provide the highest standard of service and complaints are always treated seriously by the Home Office and are used as an opportunity to learn lessons and improve services.

The investigation into your complaint was carried out by me, Fiona Quaynor, Home Office Immigration Manager, and it involved reviewing the content of your complaint and interviewing staff involved to enable me to gain a clearer understanding of the allegations you have raised.

Your letter contained three key issues that I will deal with in the order that you have raised them.

Firstly, that, contrary to the requirements of Detention Services Order (DSO) 04/2012 Visitors and Visiting Procedures, 6 Habeas Corpus solicitors was denied entry for pre- booked legal visits with prospective clients.

Having carefully considered your complaint, I have concluded that the 6 visiting solicitors complied with the requirements of Detention Service Order 04/2012 and ought to have
been facilitated entry to the removal centre to carry out their interviews. I am sorry that entry was denied and I have substantiated this part of your complaint.

Secondly, you have stated that the staff that dealt with the solicitors behaved in a manner that was unacceptable.

The Home Office takes all complaints about the conduct of its staff very seriously and when standards of behaviour fall below those that are expected action that can include additional training and guidance may be taken.

I have interviewed the staff on duty who have both confirmed that they were conveying an instruction from a senior manager and although I have accepted that the instruction was incorrect, I have found no evidence that their behaviour was unacceptable. This part of your complaint is unsubstantiated.

Finally, you have stated that your organisation has incurred costs visiting Yarl’s Wood and you wish to claim damages.

I have investigated this element of your complaint and have been able to establish that although regrettably the solicitors were denied entry on arrival an alternative visit at 18.00hrs in the social visits area was offered and declined.
The information you provided in the matter of compensation has been carefully considered and I can advise that, other than to compensate you for reasonable travel expenses (at public transport rates), we are unable to provide you with any financial redress. This part of your complaint is partially substantiated.

I am sorry that my findings may be disappointing for you, but I hope you feel satisfied with the way in which your complaint has been investigated.

If you remain dissatisfied with the way your complaint has been handled, you may also appeal to the Prison and Probation Service Ombudsman (PPO) who is independent of the Home Office. You must do this within three months of receiving this letter. I have enclosed a leaflet which explains the process.

Yours sincerely

Fiona Quaynor

 

THE HCP RESPONSE TO THE HOME OFFICE:

1. Introduction

1.1 I am Ousman Noor, barrister and Director of the Habeas Corpus Project [‘HCP’], a law firm regulated by the Bar Standards Board to provide legal advice and representation to immigration detainees on a pro-bono basis. The HCP is a registered charity (ref: 1159689) and Ltd Company (ref: 09390086 ) registered at 78 Cromer Street, London, WC1H 8DR with email address at info@habeas-corpus.org.uk and telephone number 0203 490 0350. My personal address is 14 Edward Bond House, Cromer Street, London, WC1H 8DT.

1.2 This statement is made for the purpose of a complaint to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. I have made a request for Keir Starmer QC MP to make this referral on behalf of the Habeas Corpus Project as he is the Member of Parliament for Holborn & St Pancras which is where the HCP is based and also where I personally reside. He has previously assisted in this matter by referring the matter to James Brokenshire MP, Minister for Immigration.

1.3 I have set out below:

1.3.1 Chronology of events

1.3.2 Factual summary relating to incident on 26 November 2015

1.3.3 Details of complaint to the Home Office and Keir Starmer MP

1.3.4 Details of the remedy sought from the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.

2. Chronology of events

2.1 24 November 2015: HCP booked appointments by telephone with Yarl’s Wood IRC for legal interviews to be conducted between 13:30-15:30 on Thursday 26 November 2015. The interviews were booked for 6 detainees to take place with 6 qualified solicitors.

2.2 26 November 2015: The 6 solicitors booked transportation in order to take them to the centre leaving at 11:30 and arriving at 13:45. Upon checking in at reception and completing the Section 84 forms, they were denied access to the clients.

2.3 27 November 2015: The HCP wrote a letter of complaint to the Home Office (Ref No: 131000104112) regarding the illegal prevention of access to the 6 detainees, the unacceptable behaviour of staff and a claim for the costs incurred [Tab B]. An automated response was received stating that a substantive response would be provided within 20 days. [Tab C]
2.4 16 March 2016: Another letter was sent to the Home Office Complaints Department chasing a response to the complaint which was unanswered. [Tab D]

2.5 3 May 2016: An email was sent to Keir Starmer QC MP to seek his assistance in relation to the complaint. [Tab E]

2.6 4 May 2016: Letter sent from Keir Starmer QC MP to James Brokenshire MP Minister for Immigration. [Tab F]

2.7 20 May 2016: Response received from Fiona Quaynor, a Home Office Immigration Manager, who finally assessed the complaint. Despite concluding that our solicitors had complied with all the requirements and should have been given access, she refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing on behalf of the two members of staff and further refused our claim for compensation for the time incurred, only accepting to pay travel costs. The response suggests that ‘social visits’ were made available at 18:00 on 27 November 2015 as an alternative to legal visits. [Tab G]

3. Statement of Facts Relating to Incident on 26th November 2015

3.1 On 24 November 2015, the HCP made arrangements to conduct legal visits for 6 detainees at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre by 6 qualified solicitors. The 6 solicitors work at an international law firm based in the City of London and volunteer for the HCP. The visits were booked through the centre’s official booking telephone line to take place on 26 November 2015 from 13:30 to 14:30. Each detainee had sent the HCP various documents relating to their cases, seeking legal assistance to gain a clearer understanding of their rights in immigration detention. The names of the 6 detainees were:

  • <NAME REDACTED>
  • <NAME REDACTED>
  • <NAME REDACTED>
  • <NAME REDACTED>
  • <NAME REDACTED>
  • <NAME REDACTED>

3.2 On 25 November 2015, I conducted a briefing conference call with the solicitors at 14:30. Together, we discussed what tasks needed to be done during the visit, and what kind of questions we needed to ask during each interview. I emphasised that in order to comply with the rules for legal visits at Yarl’s Wood, they must bring their passport or driving licence and the letter of introduction from HCP.

3.3 On 26 November 2015, the solicitors left their central London office at about 11:30 in a private hire mini-bus which cost £350 to book. Due to traffic, they arrived at Yarl’s Wood at about 13:45.

3.4 On arrival the solicitors checked in at the Visitors’ Reception.
3.4.1 They presented their IDs and letters of introduction, which were checked by the receptionist.
3.4.2 They also had their photos taken by the receptionist.
3.4.3 They were asked to sign two forms by the receptionist.
3.4.3.1 The first form was for legal visitors and they filled it out explaining that they were lawyers volunteering for HCP on a pro bono basis. Because they were lawyers at a firm regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, but volunteering for an organisation regulated by the Bar Standards Board, it was not clear which sections of the form needed to be filled out. Once they had received definitive guidance from HCP by telephone, they were asked by the receptionist to redo the forms, which she retained.
3.4.3.2 The second form was to accompany their laptops that they were going to take into the interviews in order to record the answers and evidence provided by the detainees being visiting. On the receptionist’s instructions, they retained these forms themselves.
3.4.4 They also put away into the lockers provided their other valuables – such as wallets – which the receptionist advised they would not be able to take into the interview rooms.

3.5 Once checked in, they were told that they would not be allowed to carry out any legal visits with the detainees that we had been booked in to see. They were told that this was because they needed a signed consent form from each detainee allowing them to act on their behalf as their legal representative.

3.6 By this time, the receptionist had called in her manager, Dave Lancaster, who described himself as the Visiting Manager at Yarl’s Wood. He again informed the solicitors that they would not be allowed in to conduct the legal visit due to the reason given previously. When challenged why this was the case, he said that he had spoken to Jose Domingos, the Deputy Manager for the Home Office at Yarl’s Wood.

3.7 One of the solicitors telephoned me to inform me that this had happened. I asked to speak to Dave Lancaster who then repeated that he had been told by Jose Domingos that the solicitors would not be allowed in. I requested that I be given the telephone number for Jose Domingos in order to speak to him directly. Dave Lancaster repeatedly told me that he would not give me Jose Domingos’ phone number and that I may only call the Yarl’s Wood switchboard.

3.8 I attempted to call the switchboard 3 times but no one answered on each attempt. Fortunately, I found the telephone number for Jose Domingos in my own records which I had retained from a previous matter. I managed to reach him at approximately 15:15, explaining that 6 solicitors had arrived in Yarl’s Wood with booked appointments to see 6 detainees. I further explained that they all had IDs and a letter of introduction. Jose informed me that he would not allow these solicitors in to the legal visit centre because ‘they did not have signed forms of authority from each individual detainee allowing them to visit’.

3.9 I informed Jose Domingos that (a) the Yarl’s Wood website states that they only need a letter of introduction (b) that I had personally conducted many legal visits at Yarl’s Wood without a signed form of authority (often, the whole purpose of going to Yarl’s Wood is to get a signed form of authority) (c) the Detention Centre Rules 2001 do not say that a signed form of authority from the detained client is necessary in order to conduct a legal interview.

3.10 Despite all of the above, Mr Domingos continued to refuse, insisting that ‘the rules’ do not allow entry unless they have a signed form of authority from each client. Upon asking which rules he was referring to, he did not refer to a single written rule, policy or regulation but simply repeated over and over again that ‘these are the rules’. I explained that the solicitors had incurred great time and expense in coming that day and that all the formalities had been complied with. Nonetheless, he continued to refuse to let them in maintaining that ‘these are the rules’ whilst refusing to explain which rules he was referring to.

3.11 The solicitors were separately told by Dave Lancster that they could conduct social visits if they please. However, the solicitors were simultaneously told that there was no social visits space available until 6pm. The 6 solicitors determined that social visit at 6pm instead of legal visits from 1:30pm –3:30pm would not enable them to carry out the tasks that they had come to do – in particular, asking questions on sensitive and confidential topics in a private space, recording evidence in appropriate forms – and that they would not be able to stay for an open-ended amount of time waiting for a slot, as they had only cleared diaries for the time allotted and they had a long journey back to our office in central London.

3.12 Mr Domingos therefore knew that the effect of his decision to deny any contact between the detained individuals and the solicitors on that day. He also knew that our expenses in coming would also be wasted and explained that I was welcome ‘to make a complaint and claim back any expenses from the Home Office if I wished.’
3.13 One of the solicitors who attended Yarl’s Wood had also spoken to Mr Domingos (prior to my phone conversation with him) by telephone whilst still at the centre. Mr Domingos had repeated to her that ‘the rules are the rules’. Both the solicitor and I asked for the refusal to be provided in writing, which he refused to do.

3.14 I found the attitude of Jose Domingos to be patronising, stubborn and highly distressing. As a consequence of his refusal I had to personally telephone all 6 detainees and explain that we were not permitted to visit them. They were all extremely disappointed and anxious due to the deprivation of the legal visit that they were expecting. Mr Domingos repeatedly insisted that ‘the rules are the rules’ without ever discussing where he was getting the rules from. Despite informing him that the Yarl’s Wood visits procedure and the Detention Centre Rules 2001 do not require solicitors to have a signed consent form from the detainee in order to conduct a legal visit, Jose Domingos refused to progress and continued to deny entry to the 6 solicitors.

3.15 At around 15:40, two hours after arriving at Yarl’s Wood, the solicitors left and returned to London. They were caught up in rush hour traffic, and the journey took over two hours.

4. Complaint to Home Office & Keir Starmer MP

4.1 The HCP was extremely disappointed by the events of 26 November 2015, in addition to the financial loss of £350 in travel costs, 6 solicitors had wasted several hours of their time and 6 detainees were deprived of the legal visit that they were anticipating on the day. I therefore decided to pursue a formal complaint to the Home Office.

4.2 A formal complaint letter was sent on the 27 November 2015 by email [Tab A]. An automated response was sent back assuring us that our letter had been delivered to the customer complaints mailbox and that a response would be made within 20 days [Tab B].

4.3 After not hearing back for over three months, I emailed the Home Office again on 16 March 2016 asking for a response, attaching the original letter of complaint. [Tab C]

4.4 After my email was ignored for a second time, I contacted the Member of Parliament for both the HCP office and my personal residence, Keir Starmer QC MP on 3 May 2016. I requested his assistance in contacting the Home Office on my behalf regarding the complaint.

4.5 The following day, Mr Starmer sent a letter to James Brokenshire MP Minister for Immigration on my behalf and provided confirmation of this in writing to me [Tab D].

4.6 The HCP finally received a response dated 20 May 2016 from Fiona Quaynor, a Home Office Immigration Manager [Tab E]. She stated that having reviewed the complaint and that in summary:

i. Contrary to the requirements of Detention Services Order 04/2012 Visitors and Visiting Procedures our 6 lawyers were improperly denied entry for a pre-booked legal visit and that they had complied with all the aforementioned regulations.

ii. However, while she acknowledged that the decision to deny entry was incorrect, she refused to accept any wrongdoing by either Dave Lancaster or Jose Domingos.

iii. Furthermore, the £6,948 compensation sought for the solicitors’ time wasted was refused and only the £350 sought for the travel expenses was accepted.

iv. The response suggests that ‘social visits’ were made available for 18:00 on 27 November 2015 as an alternative to legal visits.

4.7 The HCP are wholly dissatisfied with the response from Fiona Quaynor for the following reasons:

i. The unjustifiable lengthy delay in responding to our complaint: It took a total of 175 days from the date of making the complaint, to the date it was responded to. This is despite the response from the Home Office suggested it would take only 20 days. In order to get a response at all, the HCP had to chase the matter 3 months after the initial complaint and write to our local MP, who sought James Brokenshire’s assistance on our behalf. There were more delays as we awaited his intervention. We are a pro-bono charity with very scarce resources. The response by Ms Quaynor gives no recognition of the strain that the delay and extra paperwork put us under. The delay demonstrates a disregard from the Home Office towards complaint procedures. The complaint gives no assurances that procedures for complaints will be improved in the future.

ii. Refusal to accept any wrong-doing by Dave Lancaster or Jose Domingos: As senior staff at Yarl’s Wood IRC, we expect a professional and honest response upon denying entrance of 6 solicitors entering the detention centre. The constant repetition by Jose Domingos that ‘the rules are the rules’ was stubborn, irrational and dishonest, particularly as he was reminded by both myself and the 6 solicitors present, of the Detention Centre Rules and Yarl’s Wood visitor’s policy which we had fully complied with. Despite our repeated requests, he refused to inform us which rules he was referring to. The HO response accepts that the HCP had in fact complied with all the rules but simultaneously rejects the suggestion that either Jose Domingos or Dave Lancaster were wrong at any stage. The complaint fails to provide a full apology for Mr. Domingos’ behaviour or provide any assurances that such arbitrary interferences will not happen again in the future.

iii. Suggestion that social visits were a proper alternative: We reject that a two hour pre-arranged legal visit from 13:30 -15:30 could have been reasonably replaced a social visit almost five hours later. There is an important distinction between a legal visit and a social visit. For legal visits, a private space is offered for recording answers to questions on sensitive and confidential topics, which would have been impossible in a social visit setting. For legal visits, the taking of laptops, documentation, papers and pens is permitted, whereas they are not permitted in social visits. Furthermore, the solicitors had cleared their diaries for the pre-arranged hours and were unable to stay for an open-ended amount of time, particularly given that they had to also drive the two hours back to London. Fiona Quaynor’s suggestion that a social visit was offered as an alternative is patronising and offensive and, again, demonstrates a disregard for the sanctity of the rules governing detention centres or of the severe impact arbitrary interference with rules had on the HCP and the detainees.

iv. Failure to recognise the heavy cost of the refusal to allow entry on the HCP: As well as the time wasted on the day, 6 solicitors had also spent a great deal of time preparing for the visit and had to explain that they had been denied entry to all 6 detainees, which added embarrassment to the time and money wasted. We have wasted even further time and resources in lodging the complaint, attempting to get a response and due remedies.

v. Failure in recognising the heavy impact on the 6 detainees deprived of a legal visit: While our complaint is against the denial of entry of the solicitors, the impact of denying 6 detainees access to legal assistance is also a significant cause for concern. We are a pro-bono charity providing legal advice and representation to those without access to legal aid or the means to pay privately. We help facilitate access to justice to the most vulnerable by providing pro bono representation. All of the 6 ladies were denied access to justice that day and the impact on them was severe. The complaint does not address whatsoever the Home Office deprivation of the impact on the individual detainees.

vi. Refusal to pay compensation: In her response, Ms Quaynor has accepted that ‘reasonable’ travel costs will be paid but has rejected the compensation sought for the solicitor’s time. The amount we have requested is based on the Practice Direction 13 of the Supreme Court Rules. Accordingly, each solicitor is entitled to £193/hr. Given that 6 solicitors wasted 6 hours of their time, this would amount to £6,948 which we seek as compensation, particularly as her grounds for refusal are based on the social visits offered. Again, the refusal to pay compensation demonstrates a disregard of the impact that arbitrary interference with detention centres rules had on the HCP.

4.8 The response from Fiona Quaynor further stated that if the HCP remains dissatisfied by the way our complaint has been dealt with, we may appeal to the Prison and Probation Service Ombudsman. However, I have spoken with the Prison and Probation Service Ombudsman who have confirmed that they do not have remit to receive our complaint as they only deal with complaints directly from prisoners and detainees. Instead, I have been advised by both the Prison and Probation Service Ombudsman and the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman that the correct appeal authority is the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman.

5. Remedies

5.1 In this application to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, we seek the following remedy:

i. An apology from the Home Office for taking 175 days to respond to our complaint and a written assurance that any future complaint will be dealt with within the 20 day time limit suggested by the Home Office itself.

ii. An apology from Dave Lancaster and Jose Domingos for the arbitrary and unjustifiable interference with the Detention Centre Rules on 26 November 2015 and an assurance that such an occurrence will not happen again.

iii. An acknowledgement that the social visit offered at 18:00 on 26 November 2015 was not a proper alternative to the legal visits that had been validly booked from 13:30– 15:30.

iv. An acknowledgement that the arbitrary prevention of the 6 solicitors from visiting the detention centres had a severe impact on the HCP and an apology for the waste of time we have suffered.

v. An acknowledgement that the arbitrary prevention of the 6 solicitors from visiting the detention centres had a severe impact on the 6 detainees who were deprived access to justice and the right to a legal visit.

vi. In recognition of all of the above, we seek £6,948 in damages for the time incurred by our 6 solicitors. This includes 2 hour journeys each way from Central London and the 2 hour wait time in Yarl’s Wood IRC. Our offices are in WC1. According to Practice Direction 13 of the Supreme Court Rules, the permissible cost for their time is £193 per hour. With a total of 6 hours of wasted time for each of the 6 solicitors, this amounts to £6,948 of wasted costs.

vii. In addition, we seek £350 for the travel expense incurred in hiring a mini-van for the 6 solicitors who attended Yarl’s Wood on 26 November 2015 but were improperly deprived of entrance.

I confirm that this statement is true and accurate to the best of my knowledge and belief.
Signed: Ousman Noor

Dated: 5 July 2016

 

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