A key plank of the UK Government's "hostile environment" immigration policy, begun by Theresa May as Home Secretary, has been declared unlawful in a ruling at the High Court in London today.

Mr Justice Spencer held that the right to rent scheme, which requires private landlords in England to check the immigration status of tenants and potential tenants, with the risk of criminal penalties for renting to undocumented migrants, unlawful as it causes unacceptable racial discrimination.

It is planned to roll out the scheme in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but the court said this would be illegal without further evaluation.

The case was brought by a group including the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), which has claimed that the measures increase discrimination for people of colour, people with accents and people with foreign names, who are asked to prove  their immigration status even if they have lived in the UK since birth. 

Research by the Residential Landlords Association, which intervened inthe case along with Liberty, found that the fear of getting things wrong led to 44% of private landlords being less likely to rent to those without a British passport; that 53% of landlords were less likely to rent to those with limited time to remain in the UK; and 20% said they were less likely to consider letting property to EU or EEA nationals. It also emerged during the case that the Government's own research confirmed that a significant proportion of landlords were unwilling to rent to people without British passports.

The judge found that requiring landlords to check immigration status caused racial discrimination against anyone without a British passport and against ethnic minorities; and that the Government had failed to show that the checks had any actual effect on encouraging undocumented migrants to leave the country. The scheme had not been effective in its main aim of controlling immigration, and even if it had, this was "significantly outweighed by the discriminatory effect".

In his judgment he commented: "It is my view that the scheme introduced by the Government does not merely provide the occasion or opportunity for private landlords to discriminate but causes them to do so where otherwise they would not."

He added: “The safeguards used by the Government to avoid discrimination, namely online guidance, telephone advice and codes of conduct and practice, have proved ineffective. In my judgment, in those circumstances, the Government cannot wash its hands of responsibility for the discrimination which is taking place by asserting that such discrimination is carried out by landlords acting contrary to the intention of the scheme.”

Following the ruling the JCWI called for the scheme to be scrapped immediately, adding: "What’s more, we know that this is simply the tip of the iceberg. Layers of discrimination exist in all aspects of the 'hostile environment' and this judgment shows exactly why it must be dismantled."

The Home Office said it was "disappointed" with the ruling. It has been given permission to appeal.

Click here to view the judgment.