Under social security regulations in force since February applicants have been denied income support if they fail to claim asylum at their port of entry. But in a High Court judicial review involving four test cases against three London authorities, Mr Justice Collins said the councils had a duty under the 1948 National Assistance Act to help applicants if they had no other means of support and were therefore in need of "care and attention". Parliament had not intended to overrule the 1948 Act's provisions, preventing access to all possible sources of assistance, when it passed the 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act, he declared.
"I find it impossible to believe that Parliament intended that an asylum seeker, who was lawfully here and who could not be lawfully removed from the country, should be left destitute, starving and at risk of grave illness and even death because he could find no one to provide him with the bare necessities of life," Mr Justice Collins said.
The ruling, the third defeat for the Government on the issue of support for asylum seekers in three and a half months, produced an angry reaction against the Government from one of the councils, Labour-controlled Hammersmith and Fulham.
Andrew Slaughter, council leader, said: "We have no wish to see asylum seekers sleeping on the streets, but we now face enormous extra costs, probably several millions a year, which we can't meet. The Government's ill-considered legislation deserves to be defeated."
The four who brought the case, from Iraq, Romania, Algeria and China, said they faced the dilemma of a life of destitution on the streets of London for possibly up to two or three years while their applications for refugee status were processed - or be forced to return to countries where they feared persecution, torture or death.
X, from China, had given a "harrowing account" of lengthy confinement in labour camps and torture, the judge said. He was so traumatised that he was too scared to make himself known to the British authorities, and did not make his asylum claim until a nearly a month after arrival.
The Refugee Council, which backed yesterday's case, estimates that there may be up to 10,000 asylum applicants who have no access to benefits under the regulations. More than 500 without any support have approached the council for assistance since the end of July when the Act came into force.
Hammersmith and Fulham and the other two councils, Tory Westminster and Labour Lambeth, are expected to appeal.