THE Home Office was condemned yesterday for disregarding the rule of law in an attempt to ?spirit out of the country? two migrants facing deportation.

A High Court judge accused officials of improperly detaining the couple to limit their access to lawyers and the courts. The department has been struggling to increase the number of migrants removed from Britain. Mr Justice Munby said: ?What the present case and others like it reveal is at best an unacceptable disregard by the Home Office of the rule of law ? at worst, an unacceptable disdain by the Home Office for the rule of law, which is as depressing as it ought to be concerning.?

The judge highlighted the ?insouciant manner? in which Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, had chosen to conduct the defence over claims made against his department. There had been no detailed explanations as to what had happened, the judge said. Mr Clarke had confined himself to ?almost threadbare legal arguments? even though the allegations were of the ?utmost gravity?.

Predrag Karas and Stanislava Milandinovic, both of Serbian origin, were held for 15 days in October 2004 after they were arrested following moves to deport them to Croatia. Their lawyers said that they were subjected to a ?night raid? at their home by seven immigration officers, ?denied access to lawyers until the early hours of the morning and held for 15 days with no good reason?.

Jovanka Savic, their solicitor, said that the couple had always maintained contact with the Home Office and that they had an application for permission to remain in Britain, which had been awaiting a decision for three years.

In a further embarrassment to the Home Office, the judge ruled that the couple were entitled to seek damages against Mr Clarke.

They have exhausted all their legal challenges to remain in Britain and again face removal. But in court, government lawyers agreed not to send them back while they seek aggravated and exemplary damages.

A Home Office request for permission to appeal was refused by the judge. Mr Clarke can still apply to the Court of Appeal to hear the case.

Ms Milandinovic arrived in Britain in 1997 as an au pair and stayed as a student. Mr Karas had claimed asylum in 1999. They met at a New Year?s Eve party in December 1999 and started living together in June 2001, marrying in September the following year and now have a daughter.

Mr Karas?s first claim for asylum was rejected and he made a fresh application on compassionate grounds. Both were arrested on October 11, 2004, at their home in Northolt, West London.

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