The government could face civil claims from asylum seekers found to have been unlawfully housed in overcrowded military barracks during the pandemic.

In NB & Ors v Secretary of State for the Home Department, the High Court ruled that Napier barracks in Kent were inadequate for the health of six asylum seekers, all of whom were vulnerable and had experienced trafficking and/or torture before arriving in the UK.

‘Whether on the basis of the issues of Covid or fire safety taken in isolation, or looking at the cumulative effect of the decision making about, and the conditions in, the barracks, I do not accept that the accommodation there ensured a standard of living which was adequate for the health of the claimants. Insofar as the defendant considered that the accommodation was adequate for their needs, that view was irrational,’ Mr Justice Linden said.

According to the judgment, Public Health England had warned that the barracks were not suitable to be used to accommodate asylum seekers given the  pandemic. Residents generally slept 12-14 to a dormitory and shared toilet and bathroom facilities, depending on sheets and curtains for privacy. There was an ‘inevitable’ major outbreak of Covid in the barracks in January 2021, when there were around 380 residents on site.

The court also found that the home secretary did not have an effective system for ensuring vulnerable individuals were not accommodated at the barracks. Under the government’s suitability criteria, the barracks were appropriate only for healthy adult males, as opposed to those with mental or physical health problems or other vulnerabilities arising from experiences before coming to the UK.

‘I accept the claimants’ contention that the system which the defendant operated when they were transferred to the barracks, and whilst they were there, fell below the fairly low standard required,’ the court ruled. ‘It was not sufficient simply to put suitability criteria in place; there also had to be a reasonable system for gathering the information to which those criteria would be applied.’

The court allowed the claim on two grounds, and asked the parties to seek to agree appropriate declarations and directions for the quantification of damages.

Deighton Pierce Glynn and Matthew Gold & Co represented the claimants. Sue Willman and Emily Soothill of Deighton Pierce Glynn said: 'Based on government evidence, the High Court has found that the home secretary acted both unlawfully and irrationally in accommodating our clients at Napier Barracks, placing them at risk of a fire and contracting Covid-19, both of which happened. People seeking asylum are more vulnerable to physical and mental illness. They have the right to be treated with dignity and should not be accommodated in detention-style barracks.'

There is currently a further challenge to the continued use of the Napier Barracks.