Legal Aid bill threatens justice for migrants

In June, the Government published its Legal Aid Bill.  Its full title is the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill.  It deals with very many matters beyond Legal Aid, and its measures on Legal Aid relate to much more than immigration law.  The Bill is currently being rushed through Parliament, with the risk that key issues do not receive the consideration they deserve.

Immigration is one area that is currently at risk of missing out on proper consideration.  Many speakers inside and outside Parliament seem determined when discussing this Bill to avoid any mention of immigration.  During the Bill’s Second Reading debate, only two MP’s (other than Government ministers) drew attention to the Bill’s proposal to remove Legal Aid almost completely from the area of immigration.  If the Bill is passed, Legal Aid for immigration cases will generally be restricted to asylum claims (but not for refugee family reunion claims), advice on asylum support claims and challenges to immigration detention.

[h4]The situation continues to deteriorate.[/h4]

Last year, Refugee and Migrant Justice (RMJ) closed.  The Government said this was not a problem, other Legal Aid advisers could pick up the pieces.  Now, the Immigration Advisory Service (IAS) has gone into administration.  Between them, these two national charities assisted 10,000s of asylum-seekers and migrants every year.  Still, the Government says there is no problem.  The facts show otherwise.  The Legal Services Commission took many months to fill voids in immigration and asylum advice in Dover, Plymouth and East Essex before the IAS crisis.  The IAS crisis will surely mean advice deserts in immigration and asylum are a reality once again.  There were also many difficulties transferring cases to new advisers when RMJ closed; and the risk is difficulties will be repeated – including for clients who transferred from RMJ to IAS, only to now face the same horror all over again.  In fact, problems following RMJ’s closure are still ongoing, including for clients unable to get their case files back from storage.

Meanwhile, the judges have told the Government they are already alarmed at the loss of good quality immigration advisers doing Legal Aid work.  The Bill makes it likely more of the best will stop doing this work, or resign themselves to doing less.

So far, the Government has failed to properly consider that immigration advice, unlike advice in other areas, is subject to special regulation.  This means general advice agencies and charities cannot provide immigration advice unless they are able to participate in the regulatory scheme operated by the Immigration Services Commissioner.  Advice given outside that scheme may lead to criminal prosecution.  If Legal Aid goes, those needing immigration advice may be especially penalised if these agencies are unwilling or unable to meet the scheme’s requirements for registration.  Some of these agencies work in specialist areas or with particular client groups.  However, to be able to register they will need to show themselves competent to provide immigration advice across a wide range of immigration law, not just on specialist cases.

This could also have a disastrous impact on pro bono work (that is work done by lawyers for free in their own time) because this work generally requires initial work by other advisers – often by advisers in firms or other agencies which themselves depend on Legal Aid.  Without work to identify cases that need pro bono assistance and to prepare those cases, the clear risk is there will be less pro bono work done in the future.

[h4]Who is talking about this?[/h4]

So far, too few people.  Perhaps people, including MPs, are cowed by the headlines and stories carried by national newspapers, tabloid and broadsheet?  Both immigration and Legal Aid tend to get bad press, so when the two are combined there is always likely to be a toxic reaction.  But if people will not speak out, we can expect changes that will seriously harm many people chances of obtaining legal advice and assistance with immigration problems.

The people that will suffer will be British and foreign – including British partners and British children who cannot afford legal assistance when the UK Border Agency takes steps to remove their partner or parent to a country, where that person may not have lived for many years and where the British nationals may never have been.  Of course, most people in the UK never have to face these sorts of horrors.  However, we should all be concerned to ensure that agents of the State act within the law, particularly when those agents, as is the case with the UK Border Agency, have the power to detain people (including for months and even years) and take them away from their home, family and community.

[h4]So what can you do?[/h4]

Now is the time to be making clear to your MP that you do not think Legal Aid for immigration is of small importance, and nor should he or she think so.  Migrant community organisations have a vital role to play in this, since they provide an organised focal point for gathering and presenting the views of their communities.  If this is not done now, tomorrow may be too late.  Community organisations that would like help with raising concerns about the Legal Aid Bill should contact steve.symonds@ilpa.org.uk

For information about what is happening with IAS cases, please go to: http://www.iasuk.org/home.aspx

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