Immigrants fleeing persecution will have to "sleep on the streets", human rights lawyers said yesterday after the Court of Appeal backed the Home Secretary's policy of refusing support to asylum-seekers who make late applications.
Three senior judges overturned a ruling that had given destitute claimants the right to state-funded food and shelter even if they had not applied for asylum as soon as they arrived in the country.
Human rights lawyers accused the court of forsaking some of the most vulnerable members of society. Sue Willman of solicitors Pierce Glynn, who represented a Malaysian asylum-seeker, Mr T, in the appeal, said: "Asylum seekers with no regular source of food and no proper shelter contact us each day. Many are extremely vulnerable, like Mr T. How can it be compatible with our Human Rights Act to leave vulnerable asylum-seekers sleeping on the streets of London and other UK cities?"
The Government welcomed the ruling that all cases must be treated on their merits. The earlier successful legal challenge to the Government's policy infuriated David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, and led to a rewriting of the rules.
Beverley Hughes, a Home Office minister: "It is entirely reasonable to expect people fleeing from persecution to claim asylum as soon as reasonably practicable if they want to be supported while that claim is being considered. This judgment reinforces the message that those who do not claim asylum as soon as reasonably practicable cannot be expected to be supported merely because they assert they have no means of supporting themselves."
A human rights lawyer involved in the case said: "This is the first time in history that a court has declared that the state has no duty to help a destitute person. We shall be appealing to the House of Lords."
The judges also said Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights meant asylum-seekers could not be allowed to suffer in a manner that "debased" them or "diminished human dignity".
They said there was new evidence to suggest Mr T might be mentally ill and raised the question of whether his case ought to be looked at again.
Lord Justice Kennedy, Lord Justice Peter Gibson and Lord Justice Sedley made clear there had to be a severe degree of suffering before there was a breach of a claimant's right under Article 3. They agreed with government lawyers that the courts should not set "too low a threshold" at which the state was under a duty to act under Article 3 because such cases involved public funding and allocation of resources was for the Government.
In a joint judgment, they said Mr T, who lived rough at Heathrow airport between 15 March and 24 April, "had shelter, sanitary facilities and some money for food. He was not entirely well physically, but not so unwell as to need immediate treatment. We therefore allow this appeal".
The judges contrasted the position of Mr T with the plight of a Somali called S, a late claimant who had also won his High Court challenge earlier this year.
They said the Home Secretary had now accepted the High Court's "inexorable conclusion" that refusing support to S, who was suffering significant weight loss and psychological disturbance, "debased him and diminished his human dignity" in breach of Article 3.
The judges said the boundary for support lay somewhere between the two cases.
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