A decision to cut funding for specialist legal support is likely to have dire consequences for new immigrants and asylum seekers across the country.
On 16 January the Legal Services Commission (LSC) announced that it intends to abolish, as from July, one of its most successful schemes for providing specialist legal help to the most vulnerable people in England and Wales, the ‘Specialist Support Project’.
Under the project, citizens’ advice bureaux, law centres and solicitors’ firms providing legally-aided services could phone a specialist lawyer – in housing, immigration, welfare benefits, debt, employment, human rights, mental health, HIV/AIDS, community care – at no cost, and get immediate specialist help in dealing with their clients’ problems. The specialist advice is given, often on specialist helplines, by organisations including Shelter, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, Liberty, Child Poverty Action Group, MIND, Terrence Higgins Trust, as well as by specialist solicitors’ firms and barristers’ chambers.
The difference the service can make
Recent examples of the difference the service can make include the following:
- a destitute mentally ill women in her late 70s, who was in the country illegally, was living on the streets and begging in London. With the help of the specialist support advice line, her solicitors obtained an order from the High Court resulting in the social services agreeing to accommodate her while her immigration problems were sorted out.
- a destitute asylum seeker was living on the streets in Kent, eating out of dustbins. With specialist support, a letter to the social services achieved an agreement to accommodate him, and specialist mental health services were also provided.
- a deaf asylum seeker who was unable to communicate at all was in wholly inadequate accommodation provided by NASS, with no support whatever. With specialist support, a letter to social services achieved a community care assessment, adapted accommodation and sign language classes.
- in literally hundreds of cases, specialist advice has helped prevent eviction, has secured temporary accommodation for homeless people and has prevented the removal of people with good claims to remain in the country.
The Project was first set up as a pilot in 2001. An evaluation in 2003 found the service to be extremely successful. It had increased access to legal services. The quality of help was found to be extremely high. 92 per cent of the users of the service who responded to the survey said the project had led to success in their cases. Users reported that they were able to work more quickly and more confidently and had improved their knowledge of the law. They valued it as an expert service meeting a real need.
Project proves its value
Following the evaluation, the LSC decided that the project was a valuable and important way of addressing the legal needs of the most vulnerable sections of the community, and represented good value for money both in terms of the quality and quantity of advice, support and training provided and in terms of early resolution of problems without the need for litigation. The project was adopted countrywide, and three-year contracts were offered to more specialists in more fields. In July 2005 the specialist advisers were told that new contract terms, negotiated over the past few months, were on hold pending a review. Then, out of the blue, the notice of termination came in January – the Commission has decided that the ‘excellent’ specialist support service is not necessary and the money can be better spent in (unspecified) other ways.
Campaign to reverse the decision
A coalition combining the specialist support providers and their users is campaigning to reverse the Commission’s decision. They argue that the LSC is making a disastrous mistake which will have a huge impact on the most needy members of the community and result in greater deserts of unmet legal need. They point out that the decision has to be seen in the context of the draconian cuts to legal aid provision, particularly in the fields of housing and immigration, which have led to a dramatic reduction in the availability of good quality legal advice on the high street.
The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants told IRR News of its concerns over the decision: ‘Lots of advisers and practitioners, who are isolated, won’t have the expertise to deal with an area like immigration, which is now an extremely complex area of law. It will have an impact on the vulnerable. We’re concerned that with various newly-arrived groups of workers and asylum seekers moving into new areas, people just won’t be able to access the information they need at all.’
Garden Court chambers, which provides specialist support in immigration, housing and employment law, said, ‘The implication of the LSC’s decision is that only privately funded clients are entitled to ‘excellent’ advice; for the ordinary person on the street, ‘requisite’ services will do. But the fallacy of this argument is that proper legal advice is a luxury. It is a necessity, to avoid long, costly and wasteful litigation. It is a necessity in a democratic society that people know and can access basic rights in the fields of housing, employment and immigration/ asylum/ human rights.’
MPs have taken up the issue, and an adjournment debate took place on 2 February and Baroness Howe is to seek a debate in the Lords this week. Meanwhile, the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs has called on the LSC to appear before it on 13 February to explain the proposed cuts.