Wendy Pettifer is a Migrants Organise Volunteer- acting as a Litigation Friend, providing much needed legal support for migrants and refugees with complex mental health conditions to access justice. In this blog she tells us about her motivations, the cases she has worked on and how you can support the movement for migrant justice.
“My Dad was a firefighter and I was raised with a strong sense of class awareness and social justice. I worked in Manchester Law Centre in the 1970s as a Community Worker where I came to understand the horrific effects of slavery, colonialism and global capitalism. I wanted to make things better for both myself and others so I did a law degree and became a solicitor at 39 year old.
I have been a Legal Aid Solicitor for nearly 30 years working with migrants both in the UK, Egypt (Cairo), France (Calais) and Greece (Athens). In the UK I have worked in both private practice and in Hackney and Camden Law Centres.
I have witnessed first hand the humility and degradation of migrants forced to live on the streets or in camps. I have advocated for many people to be re-united with their families and to find safety through the asylum process. I have also acted for many in the UK to obtain decent housing and keep off the streets. It brings a song to my heart every time I help someone become safer, more secure with a chance to lead a decent life.
I am now just about retired, but continue both as a Litigation Friend with Migrants Organise and as a Third Tier Legal Advisor for Care for Calais on support and accommodation issues. I have also published two books of poetry about migration and other issues available at the website Lovelines.net.
Being a Litigation Friend
As a Litigation Friend I support appellants who lack the capacity to understand the nature and detail of the Home Office’s “negative findings” and the role of the Immigration First Tier Tribunals. The system is complicated and many people don’t fully understand it.
Some legal background is necessary to understand and explain the relevant law and procedure to
the appellant. Part of the role is to instruct the solicitor on the best course of action so my familiarity with the legal system is very helpful. It is also helpful to have had experience of case-work relying on the regular and vital service of interpreters, which changes the dynamic between you and the client. Migrants Organise provide excellent training and support in this pioneering project.
Solidarity in action
My first case involved a man in his 50s with extreme learning difficulties. He could not read or write, and had been physically abused in his country of origin. His family were in the UK but unable to support him. He was refused asylum and and was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. On his release from hospital he had nowhere to go-and social services refused to help him. He was left crying in the hospital car park in the rain for hours until a security guard found him a solicitor.
They both appealed against the asylum refusal, and got him into a supported living hostel. It was at this point he was referred to Migrants Organise who through their Migrants Mental Advocacy Capacity Project matched him with a Litigation Friend (me).
He needed support way outside the scope of Legal Aid both to help understand the nature of his appeal, and to offer more practical help.
I was able to visit him in person and with the help of his hostel support worker I was able to take time to sit with him and explain several times the nature of his appeal hearing.
At the hearing I sat with him and whenever he became upset and took him outside to avoid hearing the details of his past. Without my support it is unlikely that he would have been able to see the Tribunal process through to its end, or give updated instructions to his solicitor.
My second case involved a young man whose girlfriend was killed in an honour killing. Fearing the same fate he fled to the UK and sought asylum.
He has been completely traumatised by the death of his girlfriend, and spoke very little English. He was refused asylum after two years and again needed the support of a Litigation Friend to get him through the Appeal process. His case was initially considered during lockdown via Zoom – it was distressing and confusing.
We were able to argue for an in person hearing, and again, I formed a bridge between him and his
solicitor, whom he had never. Again, I sat with him in the hearing and outside the room when things were too distressing to be in the room.
I’m relieved to say that he has now been granted Humanitarian Leave To Remain and we are considering further action. We are working on the next steps- and I will join him to meet his solicitor in person. It is extremely rewarding to know that a very vulnerable person who would have faced unimaginable hardship and distress if returned to their country of origin, will remain safe in the UK.
Being a Litigation Friend is very rewarding particularly when you see the light in a person’s eyes
when they hear the magic word “win”. ”Litigation Friends” is not accessible through Legal aid- yet it is an essential part of the justice system.
The Migrants Mental Capacity project has also raised awareness in the Tribunal of the need for such a service to be statutorily funded, as without our interventions many people would be unable to access and instruct their solicitors, and consequently would lose faith in them and fail to be kept up to date with proceedings.
Fighting for justice!
As the stresses imposed on migrants by the UK’s hostile environment increase, so does the determination and efforts of both migrants themselves, and those who support them. I am motivated to be part of that struggle for fairness and justice in an unfair world.
Legal aid has been reduced by successive Governments, particularly under the Tories Legal Aid Sentencing of Offenders Act (LASPRO). This stopped funding for Legal Advice in the category of immigration for everything except asylum applications and various appeals. (Funding for judicial review is available under the separate Public Law Category).
Additionally, covid exposed the impact of years of austerity cuts to our Court system. In my second case there was confusion over a “remote Directions Hearing” which led to more delay and frustration for us. This was very difficult for my client to understand as we could only explain things to him via phone calls with an interpreter. It’s very hard to gain a scared person’s trust over the Internet.
With the Nationality and Borders Bill, things will get worse as is it will criminalise people seeking asylum and force people into destitution. Ultimately, this will increase the burden on the court system as judicial review becomes the remedy of only resort against refusals to allow asylum applications.
We can and must fight back! The Legal Community must: write to your MP, Priti Patel the Home Secretary or the Shadow Minister for Immigration, Bambos Charalambous and the All Party Parliamentary Select Committee on Immigration. Speak out in your community, If you are part of a Trade Union or Political Party you can draft and pass motions in your Trade Union Branch or Local Political party Branches! Now is the time to take action! t
Earlier this month, the Migrants Organise team walked 10k across London – fundraising for our Migrants Mental Capacity Project.
This essential services offers legal support to people people who lack the mental capacity to engage with the immigration system- from highly traumatised people to people with complex mental health conditions.