Corbyn has declared his support for calls to grant Shamima Begum legal aid to challenge the removal of her UK citizenship.
He argued that she was entitled to legal aid despite the crimes she has been accused of when she went to Syria to join the Islamic State.
He told reporters on Monday that, ‘She is a British national and therefore she has that right, like any of us do, to apply for legal aid if she has a problem. She has legal rights, just like anybody else does. The whole point of legal aid is that if you’re facing a prosecution then you’re entitled to be represented and that’s a fundamental rule of law, a fundamental point in any democratic society’.
On the topic, Jeremy Hunt told the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme that ‘On a personal level, it makes me very uncomfortable because she made a series of choices and she knew the choices she was making, so I think we made decisions about her future based on those choices. However, we are a country that believes that people with limited means should have access to the resources of the state if they want to challenge the decisions the state has made about them and, for obvious reasons, those decisions are made independent from politicians.’
According to the Evening Standard, Javid, the Home Secretary, also said the awarding of legal aid was not a matter for ministers.
The contention surrounding this topic increased on Monday when the solicitor representing Begum’s family accused the government of breaching the Official Secrets Act by leaking intelligence reports to the media, resulting in damage to Begum’s reputation.
Tasnime Akunjee, the solicitor, also claimed he was acting on behalf of others held in Syrian camps that have been stripped of their nationalities, and claimed that numbers were likely to grow. Akunjee is representing the family pro-bono, however the case has been transferred to the firm of Birnberg Peirce, which has a legal aid certificate. The firm has applied for legal aid on Begum’s behalf but did not immediately confirm whether it had been granted.
A Legal Aid Agency spokesperson said, ‘We are unable to comment on individual cases. Anybody applying for legal aid in a Special Immigration Appeals Commission [SIAC] case is subject to strict eligibility tests.’
Akunjee told the Guardian that the Home Secretary ‘initiated a legal process and under that she’s entitled to appeal. Legal aid enables her to fund that application with the help of solicitors. Those accused of serious crimes, such as rape, murder or terrorism, are regularly granted legal aid in the context of legal proceedings.’ He claimed that he expects a legal challenge, and that Begum will return to the UK for a fair hearing.
At the weekend, several newspapers carried reports based on intelligence sent to the Home Office and Downing Street claiming that Begum was an enforcer working with the Isis morality police and had supposedly sewed up the vests of suicide bombers.
Akunjee said, ‘I would question how that has come into the public arena and whether the Official Secrets Act has been breached.’ He deemed the reports ‘mere heresy’ and claimed that ‘the leak appears to have come from government sources.’
Many senior figures think that Begum is entitled to legal aid. The Law Society also supports Begum’s right to legal aid, and in a detailed blog an anonymous Barrister urged the government to ‘equal treatment before the law’ by allowing legal aid. The Barrister said, ‘The removal of a person’s citizenship – a government telling a British-born citizen ‘You have no right to exist within our borders’ – is one of the most far-reaching decisions the state can make. We do not want to live in a country where politicians can act with unchecked power. The rule of law requires that those affected have a route to challenge a decision and have an independent court review the evidence and decide whether that decision was taken in accordance with the law.’
Dal Babu, a former chief superintendent in the Metropolitan police and a friend of the family, said on BBC Radio 4’s Today Show that Begum was ‘groomed’ by Isis and should be given legal aid, a ‘principle of the British legal justice system.’
The advocacy director at the human rights group Liberty, Corey Stoughton, deemed the granting of legal aid in this instance as ‘absolutely necessary to ensure that the government’s decisions are properly scrutinised.’
She said, ‘Stripping someone of their citizenship is among the most severe punishments a government can exercise, and the evidence that this decision will render Shamima Begum effectively stateless presents a powerful argument for subjecting this case to rigorous scrutiny in court. This case could have widespread repercussions for thousands of people, and more broadly for how the government uses dramatic powers to take away fundamental rights.’
There are people who disagree with this assessment, however. For instance, according to the Sun Tory MP Philip Davies said, ‘It’s absolutely disgusting how we are funding this person who is someone who joined an organisation that wants to destroy our way of life and our country. How she has been allowed to sponge off taxpayers’ money to get back into a country that she hates is absolutely ridiculous.’