Refugee and Migrant Justice (RMJ), the largest UK legal charity offering free advice and representation to asylum seekers and other vulnerable migrants, is facing the real possibility of closure because of huge delays in payments for the work its lawyers do.
Its closure would mean that the 10,000 or so asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants RMJ helps each year, including victims of torture, trafficking and war from countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Zimbabwe as well as 900 children, would be without legal help in presenting their claims and appeals.
Savage legal aid cuts and the introduction of ‘fixed fee’ contracts in immigration and asylum work, implemented over the past few years, have decimated the numbers of lawyers prepared to take on publicly funded immigration and asylum cases. The effect of the cuts has been exacerbated by another problem which has hit this sector hard: a change in the way cases are paid for, introduced by the previous government. Now, instead of payments being made at monthly intervals throughout the life of a case, payment for most legal work is only made once decisions are reached on legal cases by the Home Office or Tribunals. This means a delay of up to two years before costs are reimbursed.
As private firms close their immigration departments or give up publicly funded work, the burden of providing advice and legal help in this field has been borne by the not-for-profit sector. Law centres and charities such as RMJ have been increasingly overwhelmed with cases. RMJ (formerly known as the Refugee Legal Centre) employs 336 staff in thirteen offices across England, and runs outreach clinics in ten removal centres and in other locations across England and Wales. It has helped 110,000 people since it was set up in 1992. But now, RMJ itself, which won a Liberty/Justice human rights award in 2005 for its work with Zimbabwean asylum claimants, is threatened with closure. RMJ believes that it is owed almost £2 million by the Legal Services Commission (LSC) in unpaid fees for work done on cases. And while government sits on the money, RMJ faces a cash crisis – meaning it cannot guarantee to pay staff or running costs to keep the organisation going.
The new government is fully aware of the crisis in legal representation for asylum seekers – a number of Lib Dem MPs campaigned against legal aid cuts and changes implemented by the Labour government. This awareness makes the response of the Ministry of Justice to RMJ’s plight appear downright cynical: ‘If RMJ fails, we accept that there will be some disruption while their clients look for help from another adviser. However, LSC believe that capacity will not be adversely affected as clients and caseworkers will be able to transfer to other organisations, as has happened in similar situations.’ The ministry must be well aware that there is no other organisation such large numbers of clients and caseworkers can turn to. Law centres are the other major source of free immigration and asylum advice, but they too are threatened by the legal aid cuts and payment changes. Julie Bishop, Director of the Law Centres Federation, has commented: ‘Managing cash flow is a constant source of difficulty. On average Law Centre reserves have been reduced by 70% and, at some Law Centres, are now dangerously low.’
Alison Harvey, director of the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association (ILPA), said, ‘Firms and organisations providing representation to refugees and migrants cannot be expected to pay staff and overheads and to their own bills for services such as medical reports, interpreters etc. and not receive a penny in. They are carrying the Legal Services’ Commission’s debt.’
Research has demonstrated the huge difference legal help and representation makes to the prospects of success in asylum claims and appeals. Asylum claimants generally have no idea of how to go about claiming asylum and what information and evidence they need to produce. For want of good legal representation, thousands of refugees and vulnerable migrants have their claims refused and find themselves forced to leave the country, risking a repeat of the terrors which caused their flight. Their grim alternative is to go underground, resorting to illegal work and risking arrest and deportation.
It is a truism that the mark of a civilised society is the way it treats its most vulnerable members. On that showing, the callous and cynical response of the government to the threatened cutting of this lifeline for refugees and migrants in desperate need of the UK’s protection shows itself up as deeply uncivilised. The closure of RMJ would represent a disaster not only for asylum seekers and other vulnerable migrants, including children, but also for access to justice in this country.
Campaign to save RMJ
An open letter to the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office has been signed by organisations including Amnesty International, Barnados, Liberty, Justice, the Medical Foundation, Mind, the Law Centres Federation and the Refugee Council and by leading human rights and refugee lawyers.
How you can help
RMJ is asking all those who are concerned about the future of legal representation for the most vulnerable to join its campaign to save it from closure. If you would like any information about the campaign, or would like to know how you can help, please get in touch with Kathleen Commons: 020 7780 3271/07872 161 271, email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can download a template letter here and send it to: The Secretary of State for Justice, Kenneth Clarke, Ministry of Justice, 102 Petty France, London SW1H 0AL. Or email: Sally.Jones@Justice.gsi.gov.uk, marked for the attention of Kenneth Clarke MP. Please copy this letter to The Minister for Immigration, Damian Green MP by writing to: Emily.Warren2@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk. You may also like to copy the letter to your local MP, who you can find on TheyWorkForYou.com. You can also join the campaign on Facebook and Twitter.
Join the Campaign to Save RMJ on Facebook