Women for Refugee Women mounts a legal challenge against the Home Office

For the first time ever, we are taking the Home Office to court. We've been campaigning against the opening of the new Derwentside detention centre (formerly known as Hassockfield) in the North East of England for a year. The Home Office didn't listen. Instead, they started locking up women there without provision for them to access in-person legal advice. Women are being unnecessarily harmed without proper legal advice. We can't let this happen.

The Home Office began detaining women at Derwentside in County Durham on 28 December 2021. The detention centre has capacity for 84 women to be locked up at any one time and replaces Yarl’s Wood as the main site where women are detained for immigration purposes.

Unlike in other detention centres, where men are detained, women at Derwentside are only able to access legal advice over the phone. There is a shortage of legal aid providers operating in the North East of England, which appears to be the reason provision comparable to other detention centres has not been secured. Despite assurances in the Equality Impact Assessment that an in-person service would be available, the Home Office opened Derwentside without this in place.

We are taking the Home Office to court because they are locking up women without access to justice. The lack of in-person legal advice at Derwentside is problematic for many reasons:

  • Women for Refugee Women’s research (summarised in the notes below) has demonstrated that the majority of women in detention are survivors of sexual or other gender-based violence. Survivors of such violence experience significant and particular difficulties disclosing what has happened to them. Many women we have spoken to have said they felt too ashamed to talk about their previous experiences.
  • Being denied access to in-person legal advice will exacerbate the difficulties women already face in disclosing these experiences, since they will be expected to talk about what happened to them to someone they have never met, over the phone.
  • Difficulties in disclosing previous experiences can have significant negative consequences for women in detention. It can result in delays in release from detention, their credibility being questioned in asylum and trafficking cases, and inaccurate or incomplete legal advice.

The problems that women face in disclosing traumatic experiences over the phone are further intensified by the fact that the mobile reception at Derwentside is very poor. Women for Refugee Women has often found it difficult to get hold of women we are in touch with, and we have also been cut off several times during phone conversations with women there. It also appears to be very difficult for women to find quiet and private spaces within Derwentside that also have mobile reception, which poses an additional barrier to disclosure.

Women for Refugee Women is represented by Toufique Hossain, Shalini Patel and Emma Dawson of Duncan Lewis Solicitors, who have instructed Alex Goodman and Miranda Butler of Landmark Chambers. An individual who is detained at Derwentside and has struggled to access legal advice there is also issuing a legal challenge based on her personal experience, she is represented by Lily Parrott and Jamie Bell of Duncan Lewis Solicitors.

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The individual claimant says:

“It has been really difficult for me to find legal advice since coming to Derwentside detention centre. I spoke with many employees here about getting a lawyer, but they gave me excuse after excuse, always telling me to come back tomorrow. I was detained in Derwentside for around 1.5 weeks before a lawyer took on my case on a Friday afternoon, even though my removal directions were on Monday. I was really struggling and suffering. If I hadn’t received good legal representation, I would have been removed by now and I’m afraid that I would be dead.

I believe that getting access to a lawyer is a right because no one else can hear you and help you like a lawyer can. A good lawyer listens to you and has the power to help. My biggest concern now is to be released from detention so that I can prepare my case properly.”

Agnes Tanoh, Detention Campaign Spokesperson at Women for Refugee Women, who was herself detained at Yarl’s Wood detention centre for over 3 months in 2012, says:

“When you come here to seek protection from abuse, exploitation and persecution but instead the Home Office locks you up, you wonder if you are in a good country or in hell. I am still living with the trauma of detention and I don’t want other women to go through this pain. That’s why I’ve been campaigning to stop the Home Office from opening Derwentside. That’s why I’m asking them now to shut it down.

From my own experience I know how important it is to meet your solicitor and build trust so that you can tell them your story. Body language is so important. To see a warm and kind face is like a hug when you need it most. Imagine having to tell a stranger about the most horrific intimate violence you have suffered. It’s not right. Women seeking safety should be able to live freely in their communities and have access to justice.”

Alphonsine Kabagabo, director of Women for Refugee Women, says:

“For eight years we’ve stood alongside women seeking asylum who have been locked up in detention to call on the Home Office to end this harmful practice. We’ve worked with hundreds of survivors of rape, torture and trafficking to document how detention has retraumatised them. The Home Office hasn’t listened. Instead, they’ve opened a new detention centre for women in an even more remote location and without adequate legal advice provision in place. We can’t stand by and let this harm go on so we are taking the Home Office to court. Women seeking safety in the UK should be supported to rebuild their lives in the community.”

Shalini Patel, Public Law Solicitor at Duncan Lewis, says:

“The Home Secretary’s decision to detain women at Derwentside, despite the issues with access to face-to-face legal advice is extremely concerning. Her own policy recognises that survivors of trafficking and / or gender-based violence may have additional difficulties with self-identifying and disclosing their trauma and yet she has continued with a women’s detention centre, in the knowledge that its location would severely restrict the detainees’ fundamental right to access of justice.”

Dr Jo Wilding, author of Droughts and Deserts: A report on the immigration legal aid market andThe Legal Aid Market, who has provided a witness statement in support of the legal challenge, says:

“Derwentside is in County Durham, which has no legal aid providers. My research shows that there is already not enough legal aid provision in the surrounding area, with over 5000 asylum applicants accommodated in the North East as of March 2021, and fewer than 2000 legal aid cases opened by all of the legal aid providers in the region in 2020-21. There is clearly no surplus capacity to expand into face-to-face legal advice in the detention centre. That information is available to the Home Secretary as well. There was never any real prospect of getting face to face legal advice if she opened a detention centre for women at Derwentside. And to redeploy the legal advice from Yarls Wood as remote advice is clearly inadequate, given the evidence there is about remote advice for people who have experienced trauma.”

Dr Juliet Cohen, an independent forensic physician who has provided an expert report in support of the legal challenge, says:

“I have clinical experience of assessing many women who are survivors of trafficking and gender-based violence. Since the pandemic I have had to make some of these assessments remotely, by telephone or video-link. Their traumatic experiences are often very difficult to disclose, and survivors may have poor mental health as a result of their experiences. Their mental health may become worse by the effect of their being detained, and this deterioration in mental health may then further affect their ability to disclose. I have no doubt that a remote assessment runs the risk of being partial and incomplete.”

Owen Temple, who is the claimant in another legal challenge focused on planning permission for Derwentside and member of the local campaign group No To Hassockfield (Derwentside was previously known as Hassockfield), says:

“I, and everyone in No to Hassockfield, has been appalled at the way the Home Office has cut corners at every step of the way in its headlong rush to incarcerate vulnerable women at this notorious site. We're delighted to see them being called out again through legal action by Women for Refugee Women.”