Keir Starmer 2003 court case is not the reason asylum seekers get support

31 August 2023
What was claimed

Keir Starmer took the government to court in 2003.

Our verdict

Six asylum seekers took the government to court in 2003. Mr Starmer was the barrister representing five of these people, and did not initiate or bring the legal action himself.

What was claimed

The outcome of the 2003 case means that today illegal immigrants are housed in hotels and given benefits.

Our verdict

The case was about whether or not asylum seekers who didn't claim asylum as soon as they entered the UK would be allowed support from the government in the form of accommodation or financial help—but not access to welfare benefits. Illegal immigrants and asylum seekers are not able to apply for Universal Credit. Asylum seekers were housed in hotels and received financial support before 2003.

A post on Facebook claims that Sir Keir Starmer took the government to court in 2003 to demand that “illegal immigrants” could receive hotel accommodation and benefit support. 

The post says: “For those wondering why ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS get benefits - read on:”. It then includes an image, with the following wording: “In 2003 the Labour party was taken to court by a lefty lawyer who demanded illegal immigrants get benefits

he won the case and this laid the ground for todays scandal of hotel and benefits for illegal migrants

the lefty lawyer who won the case was 


There are a number of inaccuracies in this post. While asylum seekers who may be at risk of destitution are provided with financial assistance and accommodation, including hotels, by the government, they are not allowed to apply for mainstream welfare benefits (for example Universal Credit) and therefore do not receive benefits. 

It is true that Mr Starmer, before he was an MP and Leader of the Opposition, represented five asylum seekers as a barrister in a case against the government. However the 2003 case Mr Starmer was involved in did not enable all “illegal immigrants” to receive support. 

The case challenged legislation introduced by the then-Labour government, which meant the Home Secretary could refuse support to asylum seekers who didn’t claim asylum as soon as they arrived in the country. The claimants Mr Starmer represented won the case as the judge ruled that the government couldn’t refuse support based on how soon after arrival an asylum claim was made. Asylum seekers received support from the government or local authorities for years before 2003.

Full Fact has written before about false claims circulating online regarding people who are in the UK illegally and the amount of support asylum seekers receive from the government. False or misleading claims circulating online have the potential to harm individuals and groups. Online claims can spread fast and far and are difficult to contain and correct. 

Internet companies must take responsibility to ensure that they have clear and transparent policies on the treatment of misinformation on their platforms, and then apply them consistently.

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What support do asylum seekers receive? 

While the Facebook post refers to “illegal immigrants” and “illegal migrants”, the 2003 court case was about support for those claiming asylum in the UK. 

For decades, financial support and accommodation has been provided to asylum seekers who are eligible for it. Asylum seekers who are destitute, or at risk of becoming destitute, are specifically legally entitled to accommodation, living needs and expenses as support under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. This Act stopped people with no immigration permission being able to access welfare benefits and social housing.  

Before the Immigration and Asylum Act came into force, councils had a statutory responsibility to offer assistance to asylum seekers under the National Assistance Act 1948 in the form of accommodation and certain benefits at a reduced rate—preceding the 2003 court case.

Since 2000, asylum seekers have not been able to claim any benefits in the UK, meaning asylum seekers cannot receive mainstream welfare benefits like Universal Credit. Those who are in the UK illegally are also not allowed to apply for Universal Credit or receive state benefits. 

Asylum seekers can receive financial assistance from the government—typically £47.39 a week, or £9.58 if their accommodation provides food. This support is lower than the standard Universal Credit rate of £73 (for those aged under 25) or £92 a week (for over 25s), and Universal Credit recipients can also receive more money if they meet certain criteria, such as having children or if they’re disabled. If an asylum seeker’s claim is approved and they are given refugee status, then they may be able to claim benefits.

Accommodation for asylum seekers who are eligible is supplied by private sector providers who have been contracted by the Home Office, including rooms in hotels.

What was the 2003 court case about? 

The Facebook post says the government was “taken to court” by Mr Starmer, when in fact six people seeking asylum took the government to court. Mr Starmer was a barrister representing five of the six, alongside other legal professionals. 

The court case Mr Starmer was involved in challenged Section 55 of the then-Labour government’s Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, which permitted the Home Office to refuse financial support or accommodation to asylum seekers if the Home Secretary was “not satisfied that the claim [for asylum] was made as soon as reasonably practicable after the person’s arrival in the United Kingdom”. 

On behalf of his clients, Mr Starmer argued that this refusal of support breached the European Convention on Human Rights. The court ruled in their favour, meaning that the government had a duty to provide accommodation and financial assistance to asylum seekers at risk of destitution, regardless of how long after arrival in the UK their claim was made. 

As a barrister for this case, Mr Starmer was instructed by the solicitors firms Ben Hoare Bell and Clore & Co and The Refugee Legal Centre, meaning he was acting for different clients. Other solicitors also took part in the case, representing the same and other asylum seekers.

Image courtesy of Daniel_B_Photos

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