“There is a staggering gap between the need for immigration advice and representation and what is available.”
In asylum and immigration practice, we see some of the cruellest actions of the state apparatus. The decisions and enforcement actions of our government and its agents tear families and communities apart, deport people to countries where their lives are at risk and put many people living here at greater risk of harm, by way of detention, destitution and institutional callousness. It is an area where the law is notoriously complex, and where timely, high-quality legal advice and representation are critical to ensure that those subjected to the immigration regime have a hope of a fair outcome. Legal aid is particularly important: most people facing these issues cannot afford to pay for legal advice.
Last summer, Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) ran the #APrayerforLegalAid
campaign to call on the Ministry of Justice to reverse its proposals to introduce a fixed-fee system in immigration legal aid cases. The proposals would have meant that firms, which were already in a weak position due to the long-term impact of legal aid cuts, were less likely to take on publicly funded immigration cases. In particular, it would have disincentivised firms from taking on complex cases because it would be financially unviable to do so: firms would not be paid enough to cover the hours of work needed. Certain groups such as victims of trafficking and LGBTQIA asylum-seekers would be particularly at risk of being left with no one able to represent them.
The regulations were thankfully withdrawn pending further consultation, in great part thanks to legal challenges to the lawfulness of the new regulations. On our side, through the #APrayerforLegalAid campaign, YLAL members called on MPs to sign a fatal motion in parliament to defeat the regulations. The motion was signed by 138 MPs from eight parties and led to us meeting with the then legal aid minister, Alex Chalk MP, to explain our concerns. Our report, A sector at breaking point: justice denied for victims of trafficking
(June 2020), was relied on by anti-trafficking charities and the independent anti-slavery commissioner to push the government to change its position, and served as important evidence in the litigation that forced its hand.
However, the challenges facing publicly funded immigration work are far from over. A new report published this summer, looking at the provision in London, found a staggering gap between the need for immigration advice and representation and what is available (Jo Wilding, Maureen Mguni and Travis Van Isacker, A huge gulf: demand and supply for immigration legal advice in London
, Justice Together, June 2021).
We know that junior lawyers feel the pressures that arise from the sector’s chronic underfunding particularly acutely: low pay, exploitative workloads and the psychological strain of working with people in need, for whom they have responsibility, and yet are unable to provide the level of assistance required because of resource constraints. This work is tough. And with junior practitioners in the sector more likely to be from Black, Brown and Racialised Groups, the burdens put on them represent yet one more facet of the structural racism of the immigration regime.
In this context, we are particularly grateful to have been awarded a grant from The Legal Education Foundation
, which is aligned with the Justice Together Initiative
, to run an evidence-based campaign on the relationship between the immigration legal aid regime and sustainability in the sector. Over the next year, we will be planning and undertaking a research project looking at how legal aid fees affect the work of junior immigration practitioners, and the knock-on impact that has on access to justice for people who need advice, casework and representation in immigration and asylum law. We will then use those findings to campaign for changes to legal aid provision to promote sustainability within the sector.
If you are an immigration practitioner and a YLAL member or supporter interested in supporting this work, we are looking for volunteers – please get in touch