Refugee campaigners, human rights organisations and immigration
law practitioners joined force this week to fight against the
government’s proposals to reduce legal aid available to
asylum seekers to just five hours – a move they warn could
hit the most vulnerable, destitute members of our society,
writes Clare Jerrom.
Around 60 representatives from different organisations attended
an emergency meeting held in London this week to find out what
could be done to tackle the proposals, set out in a consultation
document launched in June by the Lord Chancellor’s Department
– now the Department for Constitutional Affairs.
“The general consensus was that we are extremely
concerned, shocked and alarmed by the changes proposed,” said
a spokesperson from Liberty, the human rights campaigners.
The department proposes that the time allowed for providing
initial advice in an asylum case should be limited to a maximum of
five hours’ work – there is no restriction at present..
Legal aid costs have risen from £81.3 million in 2000-2001
to £174.2 million in 2002-2003 and the consultation attributes
this to continued increases in the number of asylum seekers, the
increased rate at which cases are processed, the increase in
appeals and the effects of the dispersal policy.
While the government is committed to protecting people at risk
of loss of liberty or life, it also has a duty to ensure that the
taxpayer “receives value for money” in relation to
public service expenditure, the consultation document says. Legal
aid has to compete with other calls on taxpayers’ money such
as schools and hospitals and resources are limited.
The consultation says the government still has concerns
regarding the quality of work undertaken by a significant minority
of immigration suppliers. But it is proposing an accreditation
scheme for solicitors to address this issue.
However, many of the organisations who attended the emergency
meeting feel that the consultation’s plans will exacerbate
these problems rather than solve them.
Alasdair Mackenzie, member of the Immigration Law Practitioners
Association executive committee acknowledges the government has
already taken measures to raise the quality of legal advisers.
However the time restrictions will undermine the work they have
done as it will “reduce everyone to the standard of the worst
A Refugee Action spokesperson warned that many quality legal
firms will be forced out of asylum work because they cannot
undertake a good job within the time frame. “This will result
in asylum cases being poorly prepared by the least competent of
legal advisers, leading to injustice and even more appeals and
And as the Liberty spokesperson recognises – further
appeals and action against the state will “if anything,
escalate the costs”.
The group says a cap on hours cannot be provided as there is no
such thing as an average case. Mackenzie says in a complicated
case, asylum seekers can talk for hours just to get their story
across, but solicitors also need to research the case, interview
witnesses, obtain human rights information and prepare a
“They need time”
Steve Symonds senior case worker at Asylum Aid, highlights that
some asylum seekers have difficulties disclosing information. Those
who have been raped, tortured, are a victim of trafficking or held
in detention have particular difficulties and “will need time
to build trust and confidence”.
After the five hours, asylum seekers must pay for further
services and this means that those with money will “unfairly
benefit” over the destitute, the Liberty spokesperson warns.
“These measures are really targeting the most vulnerable
members of society.”
ILPA warns that a lot of solicitors will be driven out of
practice or will reduce the case load of those taking on publicly
funded asylum cases. Sarah Cutler policy officer at Bail for
Immigration Detainees, warns this could have a
“disastrous” effect on people in detention, many of
whom already have difficulties accessing legal representation.
In an inspection report of Lindholme removal centre in
Doncaster, chief inspector of prisons Anne Owers found that 75 per
cent of detainees did not know how to obtain legal advice or a
solicitor, and 27 per cent were without representation. Cutler
warns the new measures will simply exacerbate their
Symonds also warns of the knock-on effect on other public
services. MPs’ surgeries are likely to be inundated by asylum
seekers who without legal representation are unsure of what to do.
Other already overstretched services such as hospitals, schools and
social services could become targets for asylum seekers needing
Refugee Action has further concerns that the proposals are part
of the government’s wider efforts to reduce asylum
applications. “By cutting legal aid, the government will make
it much more difficult to make a successful asylum
“This would undermine the rights of asylum seekers to
advice and representation which will inevitably lead to people
being sent back to countries where they face persecution and
possibly death,” the spokesperson added.
The organisations are to submit their concerns in response to
the consultation which is drawing to a close at the end of August.
Although Symonds is not “overly optimistic” about the
amount of consideration the concerns will receive, he thinks it is
imperative the fears are placed on the record.
The ILPA makes its own suggestion: “The Home Office
Immigration Department is a legendary inefficient body,”
Mackenzie says, adding that if costs need to be reduced, maybe the
government should look to its own quarters first?
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