In court, watching his daughter’s killer being sentenced for a minor driving offence, Paul Houston could not contain himself. “I shouted at the magistrate. I said, ‘Where is the justice?’” You cannot have people shouting out in court, Houston accepts. “But if you don’t shout, you don’t get heard.”
Houston’s only child, Amy, 12, was run over and killed in Blackburn, Lancashire, in November 2003 by an Iraqi asylum seeker who was on bail for driving while disqualified. Lacking clear evidence that Aso Ibrahim had been driving dangerously, the Crown Prosecution Service charged him with driving while disqualified (the more serious offence of causing death while disqualified did not become law until 2008). Ibrahim served two months in prison.
Seven years on, Houston still is not being heard. He was back in court this month to speak against the failed asylum seeker’s appeal against deportation. “I put my hand up but they ignored me,” said Houston, talking in the kitchen of his terraced home. “So I said, ‘Excuse me, I would like to say something, please.’ The judge said, ‘I’m sorry but we are not taking questions from the public’. No one was listening to me.”
For nine years Ibrahim has cost the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds in legal aid for lawyers and interpreters, at immigration hearings and trials where he has been convicted of harassment, possession of illegal drugs and, three years after Amy’s death, driving while disqualified for a second time.
Houston, 41, an engineer who has worked since he was 16, has never had any legal help in his mission to get the Iraqi deported and to stop him inflicting pain on any other families.
At the immigration tribunal in Manchester the judge told Houston he should make any representations to the lawyers seeking to have Ibrahim deported. He stepped outside and handed a barrister a written account of his position. The barrister read it, then said: “Quite frankly, Mr Houston, you have very few rights.”
Ibrahim, on the other hand, had been told that, despite failing before, he was entitled to stay in the UK because he now has two children by a British woman. Though he lives at a separate address from them, taking Ibrahim from his girlfriend and children would breach his rights under article eight of the Human Rights Act.
“But he can take his family anywhere he likes,” says Houston. “I can’t. Amy is buried at Pleasington cemetery. She’s not coming back.”
Houston’s story has been seized on by the far right, but even people instinctively inclined towards helping asylum seekers are troubled.
Last week the government announced huge cuts to the legal aid budget — but not for asylum seekers such as Ibrahim. As for the Human Rights Act, this case gives the impression that greater protection is afforded to a known criminal than to a man whose only child has been killed.
Houston was 21 when Amy was born. After seven years he divorced her mother. “It was not my choice, but these things happen. I had Amy at weekends. Money was tight, but I did the best I could,” he says.
On the afternoon she died, Houston was on his way to a parents’ evening at her secondary school. “I was looking forward to it, because some of the teachers who taught Amy had taught me. I was looking forward to telling them how I had got on in life.”
He didn’t get the chance. The head teacher saw him arriving, and a police officer said Amy had been in a serious car accident.
“You don’t think of the worst case,” he says. “You think, ‘Broken leg?’”
But at the hospital he found Amy in intensive care with tubes coming out of her. One side of her face was badly swollen.
Houston was told that she had been crushed under Ibrahim’s car.
“I try not to torture myself. She was in pain and crying and the last thing she would have seen was the person who did that to her, running away.
“I’m not ashamed to say I was crying my eyes out. I was in bits. I rang my mum and dad and told them there had been an accident and it was highly unlikely Amy would survive.”
Amy’s mother was already at the hospital with her new boyfriend. She was pregnant. Houston felt terribly alone. Raised by devout Catholics, he prayed for Amy. “I prayed to God: ‘Are you listening? We are good people.’ I would have done anything . . .” He breaks off, tears filling his eyes.
The doctors said Amy had been deprived of oxygen for a long time. “If she did survive she would be, in their words, a ‘cabbage’.”
Houston’s older brother was brain damaged from birth. He knew how hard that had been for his parents. “I honestly thought that if she ended up like that I would have suffocated her and then killed myself.”
After a few hours doctors asked for permission to turn off Amy’s life-support. Houston and his former wife consented. “The image of Amy taking her final breath, dying a foot away from me as I sat by her bedside holding her hand, praying for a miracle, will stay with me till the day I die.”
Houston first encountered Ibrahim at the inquest. “It’s very difficult to stand in the same room as someone who has killed your daughter. The thought did go through my head what I would do to him. But that’s part of grieving. It sounds strange, but I don’t hate him any more. “I’m not an unreasonable bloke, I accept that people make mistakes. He could say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m a coward, I ran away.’ But I never had an apology.”
As a failed asylum seeker, Ibrahim is unable to work and is dependent on a cousin who has legitimate residence in the UK.
Speaking after one of his appeal hearings he said: “This incident was an accident and should not stop me living in this country with my family. I did not expect to meet Christina ][whom he claims is his wife] and have children when I came here seven years ago but it has happened and I cannot leave them. I cannot go back to Iraq. Do you not watch the news? It is far too dangerous.”
He met Christina Richardson after serving his sentence. They claim to have had an Islamic marriage ceremony in Birmingham, but there is no documentary proof. They have two children, Harry, 4, and Zara, 3.
The British National party exploited Amy’s death, putting out a leaflet with Houston’s name on it. “So I went on television and said it was not about the colour of his skin,” Houston says. “It’s not comfortable reading for me, to see Amy’s picture on far-right websites.”
Even on mainstream sites, some of the comments from outraged taxpayers are disconcerting — tending to the view that Ibrahim should be strung up. “People are very angry, but it’s important not to judge all asylum seekers like this. I wouldn’t turn anyone away from my door. It was the right thing to do to offer Mr Ibrahim sanctuary. But it’s also right that he goes back again.
“Whatever you think about the war in Iraq, the fact is that Kurds like this man were being abused. Well, we have got rid of Saddam. We have given him his freedom. If he doesn’t go back, what was the point?”
Ibrahim’s girlfriend and children are innocent, he believes. “But are they going to suffer from him being away? If I thought this was depriving them of a loving father, it would be different.”
Jack Straw, the former home secretary and current MP for Blackburn, acknowledged recently that the Human Rights Act has yet to be accepted as part of Britain’s national identity.
“That’s because it’s not seen as fair,” says Houston. “Real people’s lives have been affected here by the human rights law. You go to politicians and they say this is a matter for judges. Judges say they only interpret the law as it stands, and it’s for MPs to change the law. It’s like ping pong.
“All the MPs I’ve seen — Alan Johnson and Jack Straw and others — have agreed with me. But they don’t do anything. They send you round in circles, as Jamie Bulger’s mother has said. And then you get bitter. But I’m not going to be bitter.”
The Human Rights Act has created more work for lawyers, and cutting legal aid in the way proposed last week by Kenneth Clarke, the justice secretary, will do nothing to reduce that.
The total cost of legal aid is £2.1 billion a year. That is considerably higher than in similar jurisdictions — £38 per head of population in England and Wales compared with £9 in Australia and £8 in Ireland.
Clarke said that by 2014 £350m a year would be cut from the £914m annual civil and family legal aid budget. But to minimise outrage, he said certain key areas would be protected. There would be no less money for the judicial review cases that have proved such an irritant to government. Funding is also secure for cases involving domestic violence, forced marriages and where children are at risk of being taken into care.
And there would be no cuts in legal aid for asylum cases.
Which is good news for the likes of Ibrahim, because in 2004 the government sought to limit asylum seekers’ right to appeal but there was uproar. Lord Woolf, the former lord chiefjustice, suggested courts might refuse to apply a clause that removed the right to judicial appeal.
Facing constitutional crisis, the government backed down — with the result that claimants can keep on appealing, and lawyers can keep collecting public money for helping them to do so.
“What I want to know is, who will be affected by the cuts?” asks Houston. “Will they fund me to take this to a higher court? Are they cutting funding for the likes of Mr Ibrahim, or me? It’s not fair. It’s not balanced. I’m not just speaking as a bitter father. The evidence is all there: this man has convictions.”
The UK Border Agency is keen to deport Ibrahim — this month’s tribunal was an appeal against an earlier decision to let him stay — but until the tribunal delivers its judgment the agency declines to comment. Houston thinks the problem is much wider.
“Alan Johnson has admitted that Labour made a hash of immigration policy. They should have assessed this man to see if he posed a threat to the public. With so many people coming into the country, it’s not possible to detain everyone. But once this man had been caught and disqualified they could see he posed a danger to society. He was on bail when he killed my daughter.
“I didn’t want to be doing this. I’m not a crusader. But we are blamed for being a walk-on-by country, and I don’t want Mr Ibrahim to do this to someone else.” Ibrahim might commit crimes in Iraq, but that’s a matter for the Iraqi justice system, he says. “At least I won’t have to read it in the papers. I don’t want to be one of those people who says, ‘I told you so.’
“I will be devastated if I don’t get justice, but I don’t expect money. It’s a quite separate thing. One month after Amy died, I was made redundant. Jack Straw told me I could get compensation, and I could have done with the money, but I didn’t apply for it.
“It’s not about money. This has been a wound for seven years. Justice is what I need. Then, wherever Amy is, she will know that I stood up for her.”
1986 words. First published 21 November 2010. © Times Newspapers Ltd.