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Interview: James Hanratty, retired immigration judge

05 June 2020

‘I must have saved thousands of girls from being mutilated’

I would arrive at court at eight, read the papers for an often overloaded list, and make myself a strong cup of coffee. I went into court at ten. Each appellant was usually represented by a lawyer, and so was the Home Office. The appellant was questioned by the appellant’s lawyer, then cross-examined. I’d ask questions to clarify the issues. Sometimes, witnesses would be called. Usually, I’d spend evenings and some of the weekend writing up the judgment, which was often as long as 15 pages.

I originally qualified as a solicitor, and became one of 15 lawyers working to three Lord Chancellors in the House of Lords. I was chief executive of the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, and then had two stints in Hong Kong, eventually becoming the legal adviser during the handover.

It was the experience of negotiating with immigration and nationality problems,
including the Vietnamese boat people, which made me want to help the disadvantaged as an immigration judge when I came back.

Under the last Conservative Government, there was a harsh environment towards immigrants, leading to the Windrush scandal. I sat on the lessons-learned review which reported a few weeks ago (News, 20 March). The British public views human rights sometimes with cynicism, and it’s true that sometimes they’re applied by lawyers to try to trump sensible decisions by the Home Office. But they’re essential for the safety and well-being of the public.

Some suggest we’d be better off with our own human-rights legislation, but we’re not a dictatorship. We want the same rights as in the European Convention on Human Rights — like the right to life, freedom from torture, family life, and freedom of religion.

The hardest thing was being overloaded with cases while trying always to be fair to both sides. This meant being familiar with the alleged country of origin of the appellant, and of all the witness statements and background material. Sometimes an appellant would clearly lie, but they were always treated with courtesy. Some appellants had no representation; so I was assiduous in helping the appellant describe the case without prompting. The law was also constantly being changed by decisions from higher courts, some contradictory.

The Court of Appeal recently described the immigration rules as impenetrable.

Sometimes court hearings were farcical. Some appellants lied, knowing the broken Border Force would not remove them after they lost the appeal. But the tribunal was able to save lives of genuine refugees. Sometimes reading the appeal papers seemed pointless; but, on hearing evidence separately from a husband and wife from Peru, for example, I recognised they were telling the truth.

My book, The Making of an Immigration Judge, should make you laugh, or you can have your money back. But I want you to understand the stories behind the headlines. One lady said she’d been persecuted, but forgot which side she had been on. When challenged, she faked an epileptic fit. She lost.

A girl of 12 from Guinea was about to be returned there. Her counsel argued that she would be subject to FGM on return. The Home Office lawyer opined that she’d have already had it, so dismissed the appeal. I ordered a medical report from a gynaecologist, and she had not had it. She had a 90-per-cent chance of being cut there; so I allowed her appeal to be regarded as a refugee. I was the first judge so to hold. The decision was confirmed higher up. I must have saved thousands of girls from being mutilated.

I described in my book the ghastly camps, the plight of children, the issue of Channel migrants, and Lord Dubs’s amendment — which would have allowed orphan children in camps with relatives here to join them.

Channel migrants are a challenge, but using Border Force vessels and even the RNLI encourages criminal smugglers to send overloaded dinghies to sea. We don’t know how many drown; so greater efforts must be made to stop the criminals in France and Belgium. If these boats get through, the driver must be prosecuted and the migrants treated with humanity.

The apparently merciful German decision to take one million immigrants encouraged criminals to give false hope to so many. I recommended that we should take in 30,000 migrants a year from camps. Unfortunately, migrants in their thirties posing as 17-year olds were let in, and, even when they were sent to school, some supine local authorities did nothing. What should have been a compassionate decision infuriated the public and embarrassed the then Home Secretary, Amber Rudd.

Now European attitudes to migrants have hardened because of the coronavirus, although for many weeks we allowed 15,000 passengers a day into this country through airports with no testing or quarantine.

We need to encourage migrants from North Africa and other places to stay in civilised and well-resourced camps with medical facilities, decent accommodation, and jobs, established in safe countries and funded by the UN and the EU. Existing camps are often so awful — and we don’t want to see another three-year-old washed up on a beach again.

I’m proudest of reforming the Royal Courts of Justice. When I arrived there as chief executive, the Courts were seriously in debt and insecure, and morale was poor. I brought it all together, working 80 hours a week, but it was achieved.

My parents had both been in the Royal Navy in the war. I was briefly a Catholic altar boy, until I set fire to some flowers over the altar. I was sent to Stonyhurst at eight, and enjoyed acting and won the prize debate, but wasted much time playing cricket. They taught me the importance of personal integrity. I owned up to Lord Hailsham once when I could have covered up a mistake, which was the bravest thing I’ve ever done. He was delighted, and told me so.

I met Pam, my wife, 45 years ago at the Hurlingham Club. She was a secretary in the House of Commons. She’s my rock. We have three children, a granddaughter, and another one on the way, and we Zoom our kids every few days. Their thanks, appreciation, and love make me happiest.

My parents said night prayers with me, and I still thank my guardian angel for rescuing me from disasters. I love church music, and, when I was stressed out running the Law Courts, I’d attend lunchtime sermons in St Paul’s.

I’m very concerned about the persecution of Christians, and tried to apply Christian principles of fairness and justice when I was a judge.

In 1974, I was 23, rather self-important in a stiff collar, and working in London. One evening, I presented myself at the naval recruitment ship on the Embankment. I joined as a rating, and some of my colleagues — very bright, rough as hell — are still friends. Officer training taught me navigation, leadership, respect for everyone, and how people react in difficulties. I played a lot of tennis and always loved running — I ran eight marathons. So I was physically fit. The RD is the Reserve Decoration for my 22 years’ service in the Royal Naval Reserve.

I’m a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes, and have a boat on the south coast. I’d like to sail to France with friends again, but I’m 74, with prostate cancer, and I’m at serious risk from this virus; so I may not have much time.

I heard much shouting in the Navy, usually from the most incompetent; but I’m annoyed if someone lies to me. I’m also annoyed with myself if I make an avoidable mistake, say in navigation.

I love the sound of the gun after a yacht race, signifying I’ve done well and finished without being disqualified.

I hope my book will help achieve fairer treatment of immigrants.
I see a greater wish now to help neighbours and the sick. The bravery of the frontline NHS staff is similar to a soldier in Afghanistan wondering whether he’d survive the day.

I often ask God to make me a better person, husband, and parent. I pray my cancer may be delayed. I pray for my family. I pray for the starving, and I pray for peace.

When my elder daughter, Alexandra, was at the Sorbonne, we went to Notre-Dame to pray together. We sat for over an hour with our arms around each other praying silently for everyone. I’d choose to be locked in a church with her.


James Hanratty was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. 

The Making of an Immigration Judge (revised edition) is published by Quartet Books at £15 (Church Times Bookshop £13.50).

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