A young woman is to receive exceptional compensation after her local council failed to help her apply for leave to remain in the UK when she was a child looked after by the state.
Leave to remain
The girl known as Ms Y, a Nigerian immigrant who had overstayed her visa, missed the opportunity to apply for leave to remain before the age of 18, when there is a lower bar to meet, after Greenwich council gave her incorrect immigration advice and delayed telling her it would not pay for a solicitor.
The Local Government Ombudsman recommended Greenwich council pay her £5,000 compensation, in excess of its usual guidelines, to reflect the extremity of the circumstances.
Ms Y was brought to the UK from Nigeria by her mother in 2006, age 10, on a visitor’s visa which expired the following year.
Ms Y came to the local authority’s attention in 2009 when she made allegations that her mother was mistreating her. The council notes stated she had been forced to convert to Islam and wear a hijab after her mother’s “marriage”, and that she had been physically chastised.
Having outstayed her visa, the girl’s mother returned to Nigeria in 2010, leaving her with the man she knew as her stepfather and his “other wife”.
Her stepfather reported her missing from home in 2010. She had been gone for 28 days. The police reported this to children’s services.
She was placed in foster care after her mother was unwilling to pay for her airfare back to Nigeria and her stepfather refused to take her back. At this point she had lived a large part of her life in the UK, had built a network of friends and was doing well in school.
Her leaving care plan noted her immigration status needed to be attended to “as a priority”. Ms Y’s social worker told her if it was not resolved before she reached 18, she would be deported.
Before the age of 18, separated children who overstay a visa must have spent seven years in the UK to be granted leave to remain. For 18- to 25-year-olds, that bar rises to half of their life, a status Ms Y wouldn’t achieve until the age of 20.
Those working her case incorrectly believed legal aid, which became unavailable for cases like Ms Y’s in April 2013, was not available at the time of her application for leave to remain.
They also refused to pay her solicitor’s fees, stating incorrectly that it would be a waste as she would have to go through the process again once she turned 18.
Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children have their right to remain in the UK re-evaluated at 18. However, Ms Y was not an asylum-seeking child but a separated child who had overstayed a visa. This resulted in the council applying the wrong piece of legislation and so its decision-making was flawed.
Eventually Ms Y contacted a solicitor on her own initiative, who helped her to apply for legal aid.
The ombudsman said that by delaying telling Ms Y it would not pay for a solicitor’s support until March 2013, the council gave her only two months to find a solution and put together an application.
Application considered as an adult
The ombudsman report stated Ms Y panicked as she approached 18 and sent in her application to the Home Office without checking it through with her solicitor. It was missing a photo and so was returned to her as incomplete. By the time she resubmitted it, she had turned 18 and her application was considered as an adult.
The ombudsman said that had Ms Y managed to submit her application before she turned 18, it was likely the Home Office would have treated it more favourably.
The Home Office decision to refuse her the right to remain meant Ms Y could not take up a university place she had been offered, seek work or receive state benefits. She remains in the UK and is accommodated and paid a subsistence cash allowance as a care leaver.
As well as apologising and paying compensation, Greenwich council has agreed to provide specialist advice and guidance to its social work staff on the different requirements of the immigration rules and the council’s duties in this area.
It has also agreed to devise an action plan to ensure it gives proper consideration to its duties to looked-after children who may be in need of legal advice.
Local Government Ombudsman Dr Jane Martin said: “When acting as corporate parents, councils need to provide the support and advice necessary to help the transition out of care and into adulthood. This is particularly crucial for children who do not have the extended family support and community ties that other children might rely upon.
“In this case, because of a number of mistakes and misunderstandings, this girl was left in a vulnerable position at a critical age which affected her life chances.”