The Windrush Legal Initiative received some good news recently: Chantelle, who lawyers have been supporting with her claim for compensation, learned that she’d been successful and would receive substantial compensation. It’s a milestone for us: the first full decision the Windrush Legal Initiative has seen. Today, April 17th, also marks five years since Theresa May apologised to Caribbean leaders after the Windrush scandal broke.

It’s a decision that acknowledges the deep impact of the Windrush injustice. For Chantelle, who lives in Bristol and came to the UK from Jamaica in 1969, it marks the end of an ordeal spanning decades, with immeasurable impact on her and her family. But that it has been made now, over two years after Chantelle’s application for compensation and five years after the scandal was acknowledged, shows the severe delays people are facing in getting justice. Chantelle and her daughter Sita’s story shows the crucial importance of legal advice for people trying to get the compensation they’re entitled to.

Chantelle’s story

The good news is bittersweet when so much has been lost, and when it comes at the end of a journey that began in the 1970s. This is when Chantelle, who had arrived in the UK as a teenager in 1969, first made enquiries about getting a British passport. She had left school at 16 and was working as a nursing assistant, and now hoped to qualify as a nurse. When she tried to go to college to get English and Maths qualifications, they told her she couldn’t enrol. A frustrating cycle began, with endless futile attempts to be recognised by the Home Office, who insisted they had no record of Chantelle. A few years later, in the 1980s, she renewed her attempts to get a passport because she’d heard that her grandmother, who had raised her until she left Jamaica, was ill. She was desperate to see her grandmother again while she still could, but she got nowhere. This was often the case for members of the Windrush generation, because the Home Office destroyed records relating to the years they arrived. Many found themselves in the vulnerable position of growing up and raising families in Britain, and having a legal right to be here, with no way of proving it. “I was stuck. It was as if I was in an open prison”, says Chantelle.

At this time, Chantelle was raising her children, several of whom also struggled with their own status, despite being born and raised in Bristol. One daughter had to give up a job opportunity abroad because she didn’t have a passport: family relationships were affected. Chantelle blamed herself. “I was helpless, I didn’t know what to do.” In the late 1980s, Chantelle started to hear that people without documents were at risk of being deported from the UK, and feared that this would happen to her. It wasn’t unfounded: other members of the Windrush generation did indeed face deportation. “They made me feel like an outlaw,” she says. “I didn’t know who to trust. I feared them sending me back home and leaving my children here, so I kept very quiet.” It meant Chantelle became reluctant to keep on chasing her own passport, fearful of authorities, and she started to restrict her own use of services. Seeing her doctor for help with her anxiety, she was too afraid to explain the true reason why she was so stressed; and she limited her work to employers she knew wouldn’t ask too many questions.

Although Chantelle has now received compensation in recognition of the impact on her life, it is impossible to put a number on what was taken from her. On top of sacrificing the career she’d hoped to pursue, never getting to see the grandmother who raised her again, and the knock-on effects on her children and family relationships, Chantelle describes the impact of these years on her sense of self.

“I didn’t have any self-esteem at all. I just wanted to hide all the time, behind curtains, behind doors. I couldn’t look people straight in the face and hold a good conversation. It left me without confidence. A big chunk of my life has been really destroyed.”

“Righting the wrongs”

Five years ago, the Windrush scandal hit the headlines. The Windrush Scheme was set up to ensure people could obtain confirmation of their status. The family found this initial process smooth: soon Chantelle had her passport. She says, “I was absolutely over the moon. I couldn’t sleep – I kept getting up, looking at it. When they said about compensation, I thought wow, I’ve never been back to Jamaica. It would be good to see where my grandmother and my grandfather and my uncle and all my family that passed on, it would be good to see their grave.”

But the Windrush Compensation Scheme turned out to be another matter. Sita, Chantelle’s daughter who supported her through it, says “it was disgraceful.” They first put in an application in 2020. A pattern formed. They would send off the forms, and the Home Office would come back asking for more information. The Home Office would require a response within two weeks, and would call, chasing the information; but when Sita sent it, they wouldn’t hear back for months. Then yet more information would be requested. At one point they were told they weren’t eligible for compensation. “It was like they were trying to make you give up. I almost did. After the sixth time I said that’s it now, I’m drained.” Chantelle agrees: “My blood pressure and cholesterol were rising. I’m diabetic. I told Sita that’s enough, it’s too much for me.”

The process mirrored the nightmare that Chantelle had been through in the decades from the 1970s up to 2018. Her right to be in the UK was confirmed, but she was still disbelieved and asked to prove herself once again. It was retraumatising. The Home Office had promised to right wrongs, to atone for the injustice done to the Windrush generation, but it didn’t feel that way to Sita. “It was like they didn’t have any respect for us. They didn’t listen, they didn’t care.” Chantelle says, “They haven’t learnt anything. They still make people’s life a misery. After waiting for so long, you’d think they’d have a bit of compassion. At least speed it up a bit.”

Getting help

By chance, Sita heard that help was available for Windrush victims. She got in touch with the Windrush Legal Initiative. “I was so happy that somebody acknowledged us. As soon as Nicola’s team came on board, they respected us more.” “I never thought that I would hear somebody say that they would take on my case”, says Chantelle. “What they’ve done is fantastic”. The process still wasn’t straightforward, but having legal representation took a huge pressure off Sita and Chantelle. And eventually it got the results they were hoping for. They’re worried that a lot of people aren’t aware that help is out there and that they don’t have to face the daunting process on their own.

The Compensation Scheme is bureaucratic and confusing, and applicants face unacceptably long delays. Sita, who thinks of herself as savvy and good with admin, found that the process made her want to give up. So legal support is crucial. Chantelle has a message for other people who were affected by the Windrush scandal but haven’t sought compensation: “Just find someone professional who can help you. Because doing it on your own they will twist and turn it.” Sita adds: “It’s not going to be straightforward or quick. It’s going to take patience and time, but eventually if they carry on and pursue they will see results.”

Nicola Burgess, GMIAU’s Solicitor, says:

It was a pleasure to work with Chantelle and her family to obtain compensation and hopefully some closure on what was a profoundly difficult time. Chantelle always had lawful status in the UK and it remains a travesty that she and thousands of others experienced a culture of disbelief and a catalogue of legal and moral failures by the Home Office. It is five years since people’s stories like Chantelle’s were front page news, but there remain thousands who are yet to receive the compensation to which they are entitled.

The Windrush Compensation Scheme has attracted considerable criticism: it is too narrow and prescriptive, it doesn’t compensate for real-life losses, the decision making is subject to delay, can often be poor and there is a limited right of review with no access to an independent tribunal or court. Worst of all, it is run by the Home Office, the Government department which caused the injustice in the first place.

These well-documented flaws have understandably prevented many from applying to the scheme. We know from talking to our clients, many of whom attempted to apply on their own, that without our help they would have given up on the process. Contrary to what has been said by the Government, legal assistance is required to navigate the scheme. I would say to anyone who thinks they might be eligible to get in touch as despite the real concerns about the scheme, compensation is available –

I would like to thank Nicole Ng Yuen, Radhika Morally and the team at Taylor Wessing who supported Chantelle, and all 8 firms who alongside GMIAU, form the Windrush Legal Initiative.

Ultimately Sita and Chantelle feel relief that the ordeal is over, and they are hopeful that their story will inspire others to seek help. “Now I can pick up the pieces a little bit where I couldn’t have done it before,” says Chantelle. But they question why it should be this way for people who have been promised that the wrongs of the Windrush scandal would be righted.

For information about the Windrush Legal Initiative, which offers completely free advice and representation for people who were affected by the Windrush scandal, click here.