Rabinder Singh QC: Equality has been for too long a neglected virtue

From a speech on asylum by the barrister to the London School of Economics
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One of the major problems our legal system has to grapple with is how to deal with discrimination against non-citizens. They may well not have the vote; they may not even have any lawful entitlement to be here. But the premise of human rights is that fundamental rights flow from our common humanity, not from legal concepts such as nationality.

I would like to turn to the European Roma Rights case. This was a claim for judicial review brought by an Non Governmental Organisation based in Budapest devoted to the protection of the rights of Roma people in Europe and by individuals who were refused leave to enter the UK by immigration officers at Prague Airport. Striking figures were placed before the Court of Appeal. In a three month period in early 2002, of 6,170 passengers recorded as Czech nationals but not Roma, only 14 were refused; whereas, of 78 applicants who were apparently Roma, 68 were refused.

In the case Lord Justice Simon Brown said: "[Roma applicants] are more likely to be refused leave to enter ... But this is because they are less well placed to persuade the immigration officer that they are not lying in order to seek asylum. That is not to say, however, that they are being stereotyped. Rather it is to acknowledge the undoubtedly disadvantaged position of many Roma in the Czech Republic."

Lord Justice Laws dissented: "When a Roma and non-Roma both present themselves at the desk at Prague airport and state they wish to visit London for the weekend, the immigration officer at that stage knows nothing of their personal circumstances. All he knows, from their appearance, is that one is Roma and the other is not. He treats the Roma less favourably ... The officer has applied a stereotype ... That is not permissible."

Whatever the reasons, it seems to me that equality has been for too long a neglected virtue in our constitutional law. But it could not be more important as a symbol of the kind of society we are.