The High Court has ordered the Government to stop deporting homeless EU citizens under a controversial policy that has been ruled unlawful.
Mrs Justice Lang said measures introduced last year were discriminatory and violated European law, following a challenge by two Polish men and a Latvian.
The three men were all facing removal because they were found by police and immigration officers sleeping rough.
Mrs Justice Lang said homelessness alone did not meet the legal requirements for deportation, even if accompanied by offences including begging, drinking and nuisance.
“There has been a significant increase in rough sleepers of all nationalities,” she said. “The policy discriminated unlawfully against EEA [European Economic Area] nationals and rough sleepers.”
Her ruling found the practice unlawful on three grounds, including by allowing banned “systematic verification” – effectively sweeping for people to deport without reasonable grounds.
The judge issued “quashing” orders throwing out the Home Office’s policy as published in February and ordered it to pay the claimants’ legal costs.
The Government published a revised policy shortly before the High Court hearing, which was too short to be considered and had not received ministerial approval.
Mrs Justice Lang urged the Home Secretary to “take stock and reconsider the terms of the proposed revised policy, in the light of advice from her legal advisers”.
The Home Office said it would not be appealing the judgment and would “consider carefully” what changes to make to future enforcement.
The Independent understands operations targeting migrants sleeping rough have stopped and there are no immediate plans to draw up a new policy.
The claimants were represented by the Public Interest Law Unit (PILU), which pieced the case together over nine months after being alerted by day centres and charities including North East London Migrant Action.
Lawyers crowdfunded £7,000 to bring the case, which was initially refused permission for a High Court hearing.
Paul Heron, a solicitor at PILU, said the deportations started before Brexit but came to a head as growing numbers of migrants were detained or served with papers to leave.
“Hopefully this will stop the idea of promoting a hostile environment in its tracks,” he told The Independent.
“The Government’s argument takes the issue out of context, and the context is austerity ... these people are a symptom of something they created.
“We felt this was the thin end of a potentially very big wedge – if they get away with this what do they do to British rough sleepers?
“There are other ways of dealing with the issue and this is not the best way.”
They were supported by lawyers Deighton Pierce Glynn on behalf of the Aire Centre, which campaigns for rights under European law.
Lawyer Zubier Yazdani said the High Court had “sent a strong message to the Home Office that its removal of rough sleeping EU citizens is totally unlawful and discriminatory”.
“This ruling serves as a reminder to the Home Office that EU law still applies as it always has done and no gloss that the Home Office wants to put on the rights of EU citizens can change the meaning and effect of that,” he added.
Matthew Downie, the director of policy at homelessness charity Crisis, welcomed the ruling against the “disturbing” policy.
“It has been shocking to witness how some of the most vulnerable members of our society have been treated, in many cases taking them away from the help they were getting to resolve their homelessness,” he added.
“Our own clients have been severely affected by these detentions, sometimes with tragic consequences. This is no way to treat people. This policy has been brutal and indiscriminate, but with this ruling, it must come to an end immediately.”
Many rough sleepers go on to be detained in immigration removal centres including Brook House, which has been at the centre of a scandal over abuse perpetrated by G4S guards.
Marineta and Teofil, a Romanian couple who were detained at Yarl’s Wood for a month after being arrested, told the Public Interest Law Unit they lost five months of their lives, earnings and job opportunities because of the enforcement.
“Now we feel like we have to start again,” they said. “We are Europeans. We have the same rights as anyone else, and deserve to be treated like any English person in the same situation.
“I know it’s to do with Brexit, but this is the wrong way to make people go.”
In its witness statement, the Home Office said rough sleeping had increased by 55 per cent across the UK and 91 per cent in London between 2010 and 2015, claiming that European citizens were arriving “intent on rough sleeping”.
“Rough sleepers could damage the reputation of central London areas as a tourist destination, they had an adverse impact on the amenities of residents and other visitors, and public authorities incurred costs in managing the problems which they caused,” said a summary of the Government’s argument.
Central and Eastern European citizens made up around 10 per cent of recorded rough sleepers in London in 2007 but the total had risen to more than a third by last year.
The European Commission previously raised questions about the legality of the Home Office’s policy, saying EU citizens have the right to live in other European countries “irrespective of whether they are homeless or not”.
Removals have soared since Brexit, with almost 5,000 EU citizens deported in the past 12 months – the highest number on record and a rise of 14 per cent on the previous year.
A spokesperson for the Home Office said it works to ensure “genuinely vulnerable” people receive the care they need and said it aimed to comply with the Free Movement Directive.
“We are disappointed by today’s judgment,” he added. “However, we respect the court’s findings and will not be appealing.
“We will consider carefully what steps are necessary to ensure we reflect the judgment in future enforcement.”