Campaigners are calling for all those concerned with asylum seekers and migrants to lobby their MPs to reinstate full access to legal aid.
A dossier of evidence compiled by the charities Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) and Asylum Aid – entitled Justice Denied: Asylum and Immigration Legal Aid, A System in Crisis – documents the negative impact of changes to the funding of immigration and asylum legal work.
In April 2004, the government proclaimed that new measures would derail the ‘gravy train’ of public funding for immigration and asylum legal representatives. Through the Legal Services Commission (LSC), they enforced drastic funding cuts by making profound changes to the LSC administrative systems in immigration and asylum cases. The LSC argued that meritorious claims, the most vulnerable of applicants and the best quality legal representatives would not be disadvantaged by the new system.
One year on, BID and Asylum Aid present the front-line experiences of asylum seekers, migrants, human rights and refugee organisations and legal representatives showing that, across England and Wales, it is increasingly difficult for asylum seekers and immigrants, including the most vulnerable, to access good-quality legal advice and representation.
Many asylum seekers are being left to represent themselves, as large numbers of quality law firms pull out of asylum and immigration work or significantly reduce the amount of publicly funded work that they take on. The culture of refusal and bureaucracy at the LSC has obstructed and eroded the provision of good quality legal advice. According to the Justice Denied dossier, not-for-profit legal advice services, which generally also rely on LSC funding for casework, allege that LSC decisions are made in a quasi-judicial capacity. They maintain that the imposition of severe (and often apparently arbitrary and ill-reasoned) limitations on casework seriously undermines their capacity to give good-quality legal representation to the increasing numbers turning to them for advice and representation.
Among those having such difficulties are victims of torture, the traumatised and those with mental health needs, young people who came to the UK as unaccompanied minors, those who are HIV-positive and the terminally ill, victims of trafficking, and other vulnerable people, large numbers of whom are detained. Under the LSC constraints, practitioners are more likely to take on cases that are less complex rather than cases of the most needy or vulnerable.
Quality advice undermined
The cuts have effectively aided poorer-quality representatives. Those law firms which flouted LSC guidelines, under the previous arrangements, continue to do so. The only difference now is that they have a greater share of the market place. Further, the Justice Denied dossier presents evidence that legal representatives are requesting payment where it is clear that a person has no means and no permission to work. There is further evidence of illegal working to pay legal fees. Asylum seekers and migrants have been left wholly unprotected from the choice between illegality and destitution.
In April 2005, radical changes were made to the asylum and immigration appeals system. Retrospective funding for appeals and a significantly restricted appeal structure will serve to compound the difficulties faced by those seeking good-quality publicly funded legal advice and representation.
By denying access to a fair hearing before an independent judiciary assisted by effective legal representation, the government and the LSC are denying a fundamental human right to many asylum seekers and migrants. As Bill Morris has commented: ‘If we are to uphold both the spirit and the letter of our international and moral obligations to protect refugees and promote human rights, then we must start by demanding and ensuring that the denial of justice described by the evidence in this dossier becomes a thing of the past.’
Campaigners are calling for the apparent lack of awareness within the LSC, the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Home Office to be vigorously challenged. They are demanding that the government commission an independent investigation into the impact of the immigration legal aid cuts of 2004, and an audit of the provision of publicly funded immigration and asylum legal services in England and Wales. They call for positive changes to the legal aid system for asylum and immigration cases.
Support for the campaign can be registered by:
- Sending a copy of the dossier Justice Denied: Asylum and Immigration Legal Aid, A System in Crisis to your local MP with a cover letter emphasising how the cuts have affected your work and/or your local community;
- Requesting that your MP raise this issue with the relevant Minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs and copy any reply to you;
- Asking your MP to sign up to the Early Day Motion (EDM) No. 79, Asylum and Immigration Services, tabled by Neil Gerrard MP.