London, April 22: Calling someone an 'immigrant' can be racially insulting, the appeal court in Britain ruled today, in the case of a woman patient who called her Indian general practitioner 'an immigrant doctor'.
It seems it is the context in which the word 'immigrant' is used that is of crucial importance in legal terms. If used in a neutral way, it refers to someone from overseas who has settled in Britain.
However, usage has loaded the word with several layers of meaning. Thus, when Michael Howard, the Tory leader, calls for a debate on 'immigration', everyone knows he is urging control on the number of non-whites, especially people of Asian, African and Caribbean origin, coming into Britain.
Britain has 1.2 million people of Indian origin but technically at least half of them, who have been born and brought up in Britain, are not immigrants. In that sense, this is an important ruling.
In this particular case, a woman, referred to only as 'Mrs D' ' she cannot be identified for legal reasons because her child is a minor ' took her three-year-old son to a surgery in Bedford because he had a rash. Dr Hari Charan Singh Nawal, an Indian doctor, said she could take the child home, but contact the surgery if he developed further symptoms.
When Mrs D demanded a diagnosis 'here and now', he suggested she find another doctor. She replied: 'I can't find another doctor. All the good doctors are taken up by asylum seekers and I am left with an immigrant doctor.'
She then grabbed the letter he was writing, tore it and tried to grab her son's medical records. In the struggle, Dr Nawal suffered several small scratches to his head.
When the case came to trial at Luton Crown Court in January, Judge Breen decided that 'immigrant' did not denote membership of a specific racial group under the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act. He dismissed the case at the end of the prosecution's evidence.
But today, three appeal court judges ruled that the charge of racially aggravated assault against Mrs D was wrongly thrown out by the judge at her trial.
The appeal court said the matter should have been left to the jury by Judge Breen. Lord Justice Auld, sitting with Justice Beatson and Justice Wakerley, said use of the word 'immigrant' could denote membership of a broad racial group, depending on the circumstances of the case.
The trial judge was wrong to rule that it simply meant 'non-British'. It should have been for the jury to decide whether Mrs D's use of the word towards Dr Nawal ' who had 'an Indian accent and was obviously not white' ' was just an allegation of non-Britishness or a demonstration of racial hostility.
The appeal court's ruling was in reply to a point of law raised by the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith. The ruling did not overturn Mrs D's acquittal and she cannot be re-indicted.
Between a third and a quarter of Britain's doctors in the National Health Service are from overseas, many of them from India. It is generally accepted that without Indian doctors, the NHS would grind to a halt.