Home Secretary Priti Patel overstepped legal advice in asylum cases, adding to record costs

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Priti Patel has repeatedly overridden Home Office legal advice on immigration and asylum cases, adding to record costs for the taxpayer, The Independent can reveal.

The department spent £35.2m on legal fees for lost cases and paid a further £9.3m to those wrongfully detained in immigration detention in 2020-21.

The numbers are at their highest level since the Tories came to power, having climbed by £17.1m and £2.2m respectively in five years.

Interior Ministry sources said The Independent that Ms Patel and other Home Office ministers had repeatedly rejected legal advice in individual cases.

Legal experts showed clear examples where ‘immediately settling cases provided the best value to the taxpayer and set the best precedent for bringing future cases to court,’ a Home Office source said.

The revelation comes as the government prepares to spend an undisclosed amount to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, after an initial payment of £120m for the deal, and follows an official warning from the senior civil servant of the Home Office, Matthew Rycroft, who said the department was ‘unsure’ whether the scheme offered ‘good value for money’.

According to Home Office sources, lawyers representing the government had made it clear when the department was likely to lose an asylum case in several cases. This advice has been “repeatedly ignored”, they added.

The cancellation of the Home Secretary’s advice came late overnight, the Home Office sources said, with clear expectations of a quick response.

A former official said Ms Patel would become ‘obsessed with individual cases’, adding that she ‘sees the need for legal process or adhering to protocols as an inconvenience’.

Interventions by Ms Patel and her ministers have slowed down business, wasted taxpayers’ money and led to more court decisions against the government, they added.

The claims came as figures released by the Home Office in its annual report showed a sharp rise in adverse court costs, which are incurred when cases are not tried in favor of the government.

Asylum and immigration decisions are taken on behalf of the Home Secretary, but the vast majority are delegated to civil servants, working from detailed guidelines established by the government in accordance with its policies and the law.

Officials and lawyers can choose to alert Ms Patel to particularly sensitive or high-profile cases, but sources say it is unusual for ministers to step in themselves.

The Home Secretary has the right to overrule legal advice and order cases to proceed even if it is considered likely that the Home Secretary will lose in court.

Priti Patel reportedly became ‘obsessed’ with individual asylum claims

(PENNSYLVANIA)

But the move is seen as “reckless” because it can lead to significant additional costs, as well as higher awards if the claimants win.

A watchdog’s inspection of Home Office legal costs from 2017 warned of ‘substantial’ sums being ‘paid to settle claims and as compensation when cases are lost’ .

The Immigration Inspectorate said lessons must be learned from lost cases, saying: ‘There are also risks to the reputation and functioning of the Home Office if applications are mishandled and result in unfavorable judgments .”

This was confirmed by sources, who warned that interventions made against the advice of a lawyer “could end up costing the Home Office a lot of pain and money”, while raising questions about the use of taxpayers’ money as well as on legality.

They said political interventions also risk generating more legal challenges, if the Home Office’s decision-making is seen as irrational or inconsistent between individual cases.

Sources said legal advice was spurned back and forth, with ministers deciding not just to pursue cases they risked losing, but to concede where there was a prospect of success.

Home Office documents show that compensation payments for wrongful detention can reach £400,000 in individual cases, while court costs can reach half a million pounds.

The Home Office has lost a succession of high-profile cases in recent months, including a challenge by a wife of Isis over the stripping of her British citizenship. The woman concerned cannot be identified for legal reasons.

Home Office lawyers have been summoned to appear in the High Court later this month over an alleged breach of the Home Secretary’s ‘duty of candor’. The hearing was sparked by the Home Office’s admission that it had an illegal secret policy of seizing the phones of migrants arriving on small boats.

Judges said legal ‘error’, whereby officials wrongly assumed it was a crime for asylum seekers to cross the English Channel in dinghies, originated in the department and was not explained .

A Home Office spokesman said: ‘It is right and appropriate for the Home Secretary and Ministers to take an interest, be aware of and be involved in the day-to-day operations of his department. Running a department responsible for immigration, crime, and national security is unsurprisingly not a nine-to-five job.

“However, many of these claims are inaccurate. We always strive to offer the best value for money and we operate service systems to ensure that all requests outside of standard working hours are compensated fairly and distributed equally.

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