The Home Office’s policy for investigating deaths in immigration detention has been found to breach human rights law.

In a landmark ruling, two judges found the department unlawfully tried to deport a key witness to the death of a man in a removal centre before they were able to give testimony.

They ruled that ministers failed to take to take reasonable steps to secure important evidence concerning the death of the 34-year-old Nigerian man, Oscar Okwurime, who died in Harmondsworth removal centre on 12 September.

The Home Office has a legal requirement to assist inquests into deaths in detention by identifying and securing evidence from potential witnesses.

But in this case, the department continued to pursue its plans to remove a number of potential witnesses, including Ahmed Lawal, the claimant in the court case, by charter flight on 17 September 2019.

Mr Lawal, who was a close friend of Mr Okwurime, had been detained in the same wing at at the time of his death. He and a number of other detainees were able to instruct lawyers shortly before the flight and deter his removal on the basis that they were key witnesses.

A month later, the coroner for West London informed the Home Office and Mr Lawal that he was an “important witness of fact” as the “only live witness who can speak to certain parts of the evidence particularly the presentation of the deceased in the days before his unfortunate death”.

Mr Lawal gave evidence in person at the inquest hearing in November 2020. The jury later found Mr Okwurime died after having a stroke and that neglect and “multiple failures to adhere to healthcare policy” by staff in the removal centre contributed to his death.

In a judgement handed down on Wednesday, Mr Justice Lane and Judge Canavan ruled that the Home Office’s policy on deaths in immigration detention was unlawful because it does not actively to identify, and take steps to secure the evidence of, detainees who there is reason to believe may have relevant information concerning deaths.

They said both the decision to remove Mr Lawal and the absence of a policy for Home Office caseworkers on how to exercise immigration powers in a case concerning a witness to a death in custody were also unlawful.

Jamie Bell, public law solicitor at Duncan Lewis Solicitors, who represents Mr Lawal, said the case demonstrated the “cavalier attitude” of the Home Office when enforcing removals.

“Despite a tragic death within her detention centre, the Home Office did not hesitate to maintain her plan to remove potential witnesses by charter flight, ignoring anyone who wished to come forward to give evidence,” he said.

“This risked scuppering the future coronial proceedings in this case and may have prevented the failings that led to a man’s death in custody, being identified.”

There have been 28 deaths recorded in immigration detention since 2010.

Emma Ginn, director of Medical Justice, said the Home Office appeared to want to “sweep” Mr Okwurime’s death “under the carpet” by trying its best remove witnesses from the UK before they could give evidence, adding: “It looks like the Home Office is not learning lessons.”

The department has been approached for comment.

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