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High Court to hear case against Government over 'support duty' for trafficking victims

A High Court judge has allowed permission for a full judicial review of the decision by the Government to impose limits on support for victims of trafficking

Posted on 01 December 2015

The High Court has agreed that legal action can be taken against the Government on behalf of four men who were trafficked into the UK.

At a permission hearing on 26 November 2015 Mr Justice Foskett allowed for a two-day judicial review to take place next year at which lawyers for the men will argue that the men, who had been rescued and recognised as victims of trafficking by the Government, had been left destitute due to a failure by the Home Office to provide a comprehensive system to provide assistance and support to victims of trafficking, which they claim is unlawful.

The men are all European Economic Area (EEA) nationals who have escaped from exploitation and forced labour in the UK.

Two of the men are currently taking a separate legal claim in the first legal case of its kind, where a British company is being taken to the High Court by victims of modern slavery seeking compensation for their alleged abuse and mistreatment.

The other two men, who have been granted anonymity in these proceedings, are main witnesses in a criminal prosecution against their traffickers.

The men escaped their traffickers and were provided with assistance and support under the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the framework introduced by the Government in 2009 to identify and support victims of trafficking.

Under that framework an individual who is reasonably believed to be a victim of trafficking is provided with accommodation in a hostel and financial support for a 45-day period, pending the Government issuing a conclusive decision as to whether they are a victim of trafficking.

If the individual is conclusively recognised as a victim of trafficking, as in the case of the four men in this case, they are given 14 days within which to leave their hostel provided under the NRM.

Because of the lack of any government support EEA nationals had been having to rely on accessing state benefits to obtain further accommodation and avoid destitution.

However, such victims of trafficking have been caught by recent changes to entitlement to benefits for EEA nationals, introduced by the Department for Work and Pensions, which set a three or six months time limit (depending on whether they are classed as jobseekers or persons with retained worker status) on EEA nationals right to reside in the UK, unless they can pass a Genuine Prospect of Work (GPOW) Test.

Lawyers for the men argue that automatically imposing this condition to EEA nationals who are victims of trafficking is wrong as a matter of EU law as it breaches the ‘Support Duty’ owed to these individuals.

Victims of trafficking who fail their GPOW test are being exited from their accommodation onto the street, as even shelters for the homeless who rely on a person’s entitlement to benefits to meet the housing costs are unable to accommodate them.

The four men, who have all been without income for approximately six months since failing their GPOW tests, and two of whom were street homeless for four months, argue that the Government cutting support after 45 days produces a gap in their ‘support duty’ to provide assistance to victims of trafficking.

Lawyers from Leigh Day, who are representing the men, argue that this ‘support duty’ extends beyond the date when an individual is conclusively recognised as a victim of trafficking and should depend upon the needs and circumstances of the individual, and an assessment should take place in each case. 

Ugo Hayter from the human rights team at law firm Leigh Day, who is representing the men, said:

“Individuals conclusively recognised as victims of trafficking are routinely being faced with the impossible choice of street homelessness, a return to exploitative work, or a bus ride back to their home country where they might face destitution, reprisals from their traffickers or re-trafficking.

“Victims of trafficking make up one of the most vulnerable classes of people in our society today; upon being rescued by the UK they should be enabled to rebuild their lives in safety and with dignity, instead because of the UK’s failures they are simply falling through the cracks, in some cases ending up in a worse situation than when they were trafficked.

“We are also concerned that the failure by this Government to provide adequate support, apart from being unlawful, also threatens to undermine the legal claims currently being taken against those involved in the practice of forced labour and the prosecution of traffickers, which are an important element in preventing and deterring trafficking.”