In a damning indictment of the Home Office’s proposed immigration overhaul, the professional body for solicitors in England and Wales said the reforms would “make a mockery of British fair play” and risked “overturning” the principle that everyone is equal.
The home secretary unveiled new measures in March that would see refugees who arrive in Britain via unauthorised routes denied an automatic right to asylum and instead regularly reassessed for removal to safe countries they passed through, which are usually in the EU.
People who cannot immediately be removed would be stripped of benefits – placing them in the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) category – and have their family reunion rights limited.
In an 81-page consultation response to the plans, Law Society president I Stephanie Boyce warned that penalising asylum seekers who reach UK shores by “so-called irregular routes”, such as by boat, risked breaching international law by creating a “two-tier asylum system”.
The Refugee Convention, to which Britain is a signatory, recognises that people fleeing persecution may have to use irregular means to travel and should not be penalised for this.
Ms Patel has said the plans are aimed at preventing people smugglers from “exploiting” the UK’s asylum system, but Ms Boyce warned that they risked punishing the victims of criminal networks.
“The proposals seek to push asylum-seekers who reach the UK by irregular routes into destitution or homelessness as a way of coercing them to leave the country,” she said.
“Extremely vulnerable people seeking asylum are exercising their legal right to escape human rights abuses – to penalise them in this way could constitute a further abuse. Punishing victims of crime is not acceptable in a civilised, democratic country which upholds the rule of law.”
As part of the new plans, the Home Office also proposes to limit access to the court and rights to appeal for asylum seekers to prevent “repeated unmeritorious appeals and claims”.
But the Law Society president warned that this move would remove “critical safeguards” from a system which makes “life and death decisions” and create a “barrier to accessing justice for many people”.
Nearly half (45 per cent) of asylum appeals were successful in the year to March 2020 - the highest success rate in the last decade - reflecting poor initial decision-making by the Home Office.
“The independence of our legal system underpins Britain’s standing internationally, our reputation for democracy and fair play,” said Ms Boyce.
“That independence hinges in part on lawyers being able to do their job without prejudice and to represent their clients, whomever they may be, according to the laws of the land.”
Ms Boyce also said the proposals “lacked credibility” because they were “not supported by evidence, detail and perhaps - most damningly – they muddle immigration, asylum and nationality laws”.
“The rule of law and access to justice should underpin any reform of the asylum system. The proposals risk seriously infringing both these pillars of our democracy,” she added.
“Any changes should be well-evidenced, coherent and take a trauma-informed approach, reflecting the experiences of people seeking asylum in the UK.”
Immigration minister Chris Philp said: “We strongly refute these claims which totally misrepresent our New Plan for Immigration.
“It will be in line with our international and legal obligations and will increase access to legal advice. It will also tackle endless meritless claims – often lodged at the last minute – which clog up the courts.
“The New Plan for Immigration will help to tackle people smugglers preying on the vulnerable.”
It comes after immigration and human-rights organisations branded the government consultation on the changes, which ends on Thursday, “a sham” and a “thinly veiled public-relations exercise”, claiming the consultation was designed to lead people to endorse the proposals.
Nearly 200 groups, including Refugee Action and Freedom from Torture said the consultation was “poorly designed, confusing and inaccessible”.