Sam Louis, who has lived in the UK since he was a child and is now 31, was held in immigration detention for four years until May 2015, during which time he developed chronic and severe mental illnesses.
In a highly critical ruling, Judge Cotter QC concluded that 42 months of his time in detention was an unlawful breach of his human rights, citing Home Office failures going “very well beyond maladministration”.
Mr Louis fled the Democratic Republic of Congo at a young age and arrived in the UK from Belgium aged around 12. His travel and documentation is said to have been arranged by his aunt.
He had been planning to stay with his older cousin in London but was unable to as his cousin lived in a single occupancy hostel. He is said to have been homeless for about a week before police referred him to Newham social services, where he remained until he became an adult.
During his time in care, no efforts appear to have been made to regularise his immigration status. Shortly before turning 18 he submitted an application for leave to remain, but did not receive a Home Office decision until years later.
Aged 20, Mr Louis was arrested for robbery after he and a group of others stole mobile phones from three boys on a bus, which was later described by a judge as “relatively spontaneous low-level street robbery”. He was released and later sentenced to 18 months in prison.
In evidence submitted to the court, Mr Louis said of his time in jail: “I learned a lot while I was in prison ... I engaged in courses and exercised, I worked. I was young and dumb and prison taught me how to be smart ... I got my head down and worked towards my release date.”
His release date was set for 19 May 2011, but two days before this, the Home Office issued him deportation proceedings and he remained in prison under immigration powers.
The Home Office said they were unable to secure a travel document for Mr Louis that would allow them to remove him and justified keeping him in detention for a prolonged period by accusing him of providing “no assistance at all” with establishing his immigration status and nationality.
But Judge Cotter said this assertion was “simply not correct” and that Mr Louis did provide relevant information about himself. He said Mr Louis had told the department he was too young to remember details about his entry to the UK, but he disclosed his date of birth and the fact that he had been in the care of Newham social services among other relevant information, none of which was subsequently followed up on.
The judge said it was “remarkable” that no attempt was made by the Home Office to contact Newham social services, and that the “failure to pursue obvious and necessary avenues of investigation with reasonable diligence” meant that information that should have been known about his history in the UK, family and local ties were not known.
If they had, they would have recognised that he had an outstanding immigration application and had been in the UK for nine years, he said.
The judgement also notes that Home Office lawyers could provide no explanation as to why the Belgian authorities’ records about Mr Louis, which would have helped to clarify his identity, were not sought during the first four years of detention.
Mr Louis’s mental health declined significantly while he was detained, according to experts. A doctor’s report submitted to the court noted that he saw his detention as “arbitrary, unfair and prolonged”, which contributed “in very large part” to the onset of his severe mental illnesses, which included psychotic and depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation.
It was not until May 2015, when a senior Home Office official noted that the department “risked being judged as unlawfully detaining the subject”, that Mr Louis was released from detention. He was released to the street with no money, but he was supported by family in the UK.
“When I was released the first time, it was such a good feeling. I was able to see my family and friends … My mental health got better,” Mr Louis said in court submissions.
However, his status remained unresolved and he was detained again in October 2015, when he was issued removal directions for 20 November. He is said to have stated intent to harm himself during this period of detention and at one point had to be held down to stop him from putting razor blades in his mouth, according to the judgment.
Legal charity Bail for Immigration Detainees lodged representations which led to his removal being cancelled and he was released in January 2016. He submitted a human rights claim which was initially refused but an appeal against this decision was allowed in November 2019.
In his ruling, Judge Cotton said there had been “repeated and clear failures” by the Home Office to progress and investigate matters on Mr Louis’s case which “did not come close to satisfying the high duty upon a body administratively detaining without charge”.
“Months were passing without any critical scrutiny of the deprivation of liberty... To a person in detention, particularly in prison, every day of freedom lost matters and the [Home Office] needs to be able to justify it. In this case I think that principle became lost to sight,” he said.
Mr Louis’s solicitor, Nkiru Okafor of Wilson Solicitors LLP, told The Independent her client’s case was a “sad and infuriating” example of the “perfect storm” created by the “culture of disbelief which permeates the Home Office, their lack of diligence and indefinite detention”.
Annie Viswanathan, director of Bail for Immigration Detainees, said Mr Louis’s treatment was “atrocious” but that the Home Office failings criticised in the judgment were “depressingly familiar.”
“It exposes a culture of disbelief, flagrant disregard of the right to liberty and a willingness on the part of persons in authority to use deception to keep people in detention. The Home Office has shown complete disregard for Mr Louis, his safety and his life,” she added.
The Home Office said it did not routinely comment on individual cases, but added: “Detention is used only when absolutely necessary, with 95 per cent of those liable to be detained already managed in the community.
“We do not detain people indefinitely. People are only detained when there is a realistic prospect of their removal within a reasonable timescale.”