Another in the series of vignettes about my perhaps slightly unusual life at the English Bar. The disaster recounted below occurred in early 1994.
A children’s author called Lemony Snicket wrote a book called A Series of Unfortunate Events. I once represented someone who had suffered a series of such events.
A Nigerian, X, had been born in the UK where his affluent parents had been on holiday. A few weeks after the birth, the family returned to Nigeria, where X went to school. It was then decided to send X to university overseas. An American university, I think in the Midwest, was chosen and X attended that institution for a few years. During that time, X also engaged, like many Nigerians, in business activities of some sort. Unfortunately, as a result of these, he was charged and convicted of a Federal offence of fraud, subsequently serving a one-year sentence in Federal prison.
X had entered the USA on a visa which was invalidated once X was convicted of a Federal offence. Thus, when the year in prison had finished, X was incarcerated in another Federal detention facility as a person facing deportation. X wanted to appeal his conviction and so resisted deportation by filing an appeal against that too. He was moved to a Federal facility in Louisiana. According to his own account, the place was a “concentration camp” amid heat and mosquitos in which place, every day, he was offered the chance to be released if only he would agree to drop his immigration appeal and return to Nigeria. He resisted these invitations for some time, but eventually, worn down by the conditions, conceded.
It was at this point that it was discovered that X had been born in London. The US authorities thenceforth refused to deal with the Nigerian Consulate on his behalf and took him under guard to the UK Consulate in Houston, Texas, apparently the nearest one with authority to deal with the matter. He was issued with a British passport and was then sent to the UK, a country he had only seen as a newborn baby.
X said that he had never been violent, but only argued with the US officials accompanying him, to the effect that he wished to go to Nigeria, not the USA. As a result, X travelled from Houston to Gatwick handcuffed throughout the flight, also forced to wear a weighted leather device attached to one leg, and with two guards guarding him.
X’s travails continued after landing. All other passengers were disembarked, then a police car was driven up to the aircraft and steps brought. X was told to get up but could not, by reason of his leg having gone to sleep. The handcuffs and leg weight were removed. He was then manhandled by the guards and the British police off the aircraft, then literally dragged down the aircraft steps and into the waiting police car. It got worse from there.
Having (according to his own evidence) not wanted to be sent to the UK, X was now held at Gatwick police station and then an immigration detention centre near Portsmouth on the basis that he had no right to be in the UK and was, notwithstanding the recently-issued British passport, an illegal immigrant! After two weeks in British immigration detention, X was driven back to Gatwick police station, told “OK, you have been checked out and you do have the right to be in the UK”, whereupon he was given the bus fare to Crawley, the nearest town, and released. Thus X found himself in the UK with only pennies in his pocket, nowhere to stay, knowing no-one and nothing.
X eventually managed to get some kind of emergency help with housing from the local council but wanted to move to London. He left Crawley for various reasons and went to London. He applied for housing to seven London boroughs, most of which refused even to consider his request (he claimed). This was the basis for his wish, over a year later, to seek judicial review of the decisions to refuse him and/or the refusal to consider his request(s) at all. I have no idea why his Nigerian family did not help him out with money or air tickets. Maybe the American events had estranged them.
X in person was irritating: an obssessive, fast-talking West African who had obviously decided to stay in the UK and to extract as much benefit as possible. Having said that, I thought that he had been treated very badly both in the US and UK. His case seemed at least arguable. His solicitor was a small Nigerian, almost a pygmy in size, who did not inspire confidence.
On the morning of the “application to apply” of the 2-stage process, I was at the Royal Courts of Justice, my by-then-usual stamping ground, in order to appear before Mr. Justice Laws (later a Lord Justice of Appeal). I had invited an old friend, an elegant European aristocratic lady, to see me in action and then, after my hoped-for initial triumph, to join me at lunch in Hall at nearby Lincoln’s Inn.
Greek tragedy placed hubris as inviting Nemesis. The courtroom was quite crowded with other barristers coming on after me. At first, things went well, despite the fact that, instead of neatly-organized files, the pygmy solicitor’s filing system appeared to be a large black bin-bag. The judge was listening, even perhaps slightly nodding at times (or was that wishful thinking on my part?). Then I struck the reef:
“Mr. Millard, where is the document from each council refusing Mr X?”
“My Lord, there are no such documents. Part of the case of the Applicant is that he requested a written decision in each case and was refused even that.”
“Mr. Millard, I think that I have to see something in writing.”
It was at this point that I felt a tug on my barrister’s black gown. Turning slightly, I saw the pygmy waving a piece of paper excitedly, smiling manically and nodding like a mechanized Victorian toy. Rashly, very rashly, I replied to the judge,
“I in fact appear to be in a position to assist your Lordship”
and only then looked at the paper. Big mistake. It was blank. I turned it over. Blank. I turned it over again, not quite believing this. I must have looked like a character out of a Laurel and Hardy film. I caught, peripherally, the incredulous looks of a couple of the waiting barristers. Sadly, no flying saucer appeared to beam me up and away from it all. I had to say something.
“I regret, my Lord, that in fact I am not in a position to assist your Lordship.”
Thus it was that Mr Justice Laws, later Lord Justice Laws, turned that colour, a mixture of pink, red and purple, that I now call Judicial Livid. His final remarks, in refusing our application, were curt (though not insulting; they did not have to be…).
On the way out of the courtroom and into the corridor, my guest, swathed in furs and jewels, and whom I had hoped would see me achieve a successful result, sympathetically said, “poor Ian”…