Authors:Tessa Lieven Wright
Last updated:2023-09-25
Legal aid: fighting for the future – Immigration advice in Brighton: ‘Its own hostile environment’
Marc Bloomfield
Description: Little Amal at Voices in Exile_Carlos Jasso
In the third of this series on the state of legal aid across England and Wales, Tessa Lieven Wright speaks to three inspiring organisations in Brighton, working against the odds to support asylum-seekers and other migrants, in a sector on the verge of collapse.
Description: Refugee Week celebration event 2023_Carlos Jasso
Refugee Week celebration event 2023 (photo: Carlos Jasso)
In 27 July, Mr Justice Chamberlain ruled that the Home Office decision to routinely place unaccompanied asylum-seeking (UAS) children in hotels was ‘unlawful’ (R (ECPAT UK) v Kent CC and Secretary of State for the Home Department and others [2023] EWHC 1953 (Admin)). This High Court decision made headlines.
While the judge admitted that in ‘true emergency situations’ for ‘very short periods of time’, this practice could be accepted, he made it clear that, since December 2021 – when this method of accommodating UAS children became commonplace – ‘the home secretary’s provision of hotel accommodation for UAS children had exceeded the proper limits of her powers and become unlawful’.
One of the local authorities that brought legal action against the Home Office in this case was Brighton and Hove City Council. In recent years, Brighton has been in the news cycle as UAS children are regularly disappearing from the city’s hotels. It has become somewhat of a national scandal. Recently, it was reported that a hotel from which 136 children have vanished, will be reinstated as asylum-seeker accommodation.
With increasing numbers of asylum-seekers arriving in the UK, pressure has been exponentially placed on Kent County Council. A recent judgment from the High Court (R (Medway Council) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2023] EWHC 377 (Admin)) stated that there is ‘something of a crisis in south-east England, with Kent County Council declaring itself unable to look after any more UAS children’. Because of this, large numbers of UAS children have been moved across the county border and into Brighton, which is now feeling the strain.
A system on the edge
All aspects of the immigration and asylum support and advice network have been subject to enormous pressure recently. Partly because of higher numbers of undocumented asylum-seekers and refugees entering the country, but mostly because of Home Office ineffectiveness in dealing with the high caseload. Speaking to advice workers in Brighton, the message is clear: this is a system on the edge. COVID-19, the cost-of-living crisis, Home Office ineptitude and massive cuts to the legal aid system have compounded to trigger what can only be characterised as a crisis.
For this third article in Legal Action’s series on legal aid, I spoke to people working in Brighton to learn more about the situation in the city. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) cuts have crippled legal aid services in the South East, leading to it becoming an ‘advice desert’ for immigration and asylum work.
Dr Jo Wilding is an academic based at Sussex University, specialising in legal aid and access to legal advice, especially in immigration and asylum. She also supervises Sussex University’s Migration Law Clinic, which offers ‘pro bono … immigration and asylum law advice to members of the public who cannot access legal aid [or] a legal practitioner’.
Jo has done extensive research into legal aid and her most recent report, It’s a no-brainer (Justice Together, May 2023), explored ‘local authority funding for immigration legal advice in the UK’ (see June 2023 Legal Action 6). As a Brighton resident, she knows a huge amount about the city’s own shortcomings when it comes to immigration advice.
‘We’ve only got one legal aid provider for Brighton and that’s [also] for the whole of East and West Sussex and Surrey. They’re small … it was five people, now it’s four.’ This provider is BHT Sussex, which has existed in Brighton in some form or another for over 50 years. It now operates as a specialist advice and support service and Jo explains that its work has vastly increased due to the high numbers of asylum-seekers placed in Brighton.
‘It’s massively increased the need. Brighton now needs to take unaccompanied children from Kent under the national transfer scheme.’ This scheme was established to ‘enable the safe transfer of unaccompanied children in the UK from one local authority … to another’. Jo highlights how people arriving at Newhaven or Gatwick are funnelled to Brighton, alongside those whom Kent can’t accommodate. ‘The need has massively increased because of dispersal even before you get on to the hotels.’
This double whammy of the transfer scheme and the housing of UAS children in Home Office-operated hotels has placed immense pressure on Brighton’s services. Jo says that the heightened need has been contrasted with a decline in funding for legal advice services. The only other Brighton-based legal aid provider was lost in 2017, leaving only BHT Sussex. ‘People are now being referred to Barnes, Croydon, and London firms. That’s the situation in Brighton.’
The South Coast: an immigration advice desert
Jo explains that part of the problem is a misconception that the South East is well served with legal aid providers – because London skews the data. ‘There are only six legal aid providers across the whole South Coast, below London and Bristol … it’s really limited.’
Description: Volunteers at Voices in Exile foodbank_Stephen Cummiskey
Volunteers at Voices in Exile foodbank (photo: Stephen Cummiskey)
Due to the lack of legal aid providers, pressure has been placed on other services to shoulder the excess burden. Jo draws attention to another Brighton advice service, Voices in Exile, which ‘works with refugees, asylum-seekers and vulnerable migrants with no recourse to public funds’.
I spoke with Mel Steel, director of Voices in Exile, about the invaluable work that her organisation does. As it does not have a legal aid contract, it refers all cases within the scope of legal aid to alternative providers and is left with a complex range of cases. ‘We concentrate on all types of immigration work that are outside of the scope of legal aid,’ Mel explains. ‘So that’s what would generally have been regarded as human rights claims, as well as issues of private and family life.’
‘In terms of generalist work, we support asylum-seekers who are currently being accommodated in contingency hotels … we offer help with housing and homelessness, welfare benefits … and we also work with resettled refugees who have come here via the government’s very few safe and legal routes.’
So, it does a huge amount and is a vital asset in Brighton’s network of support. However, it is financed almost entirely by short-term grant funding, individual donations and fundraising. ‘We don’t have any dedicated funding for any of the generalist advice or specialist immigration casework that we provide, so we have to try and fundraise for it.’ Mel tells me that it’s ‘very, very difficult to fundraise for that work because it’s unappealing to funders’.
One-and-a-half people make up the Voices in Exile immigration casework team. Mel says they are forced to turn away around 50 per cent of referrals due to their limited capacity. She paints a similar picture to Jo: ‘Demand has increased significantly and some of the providers to whom we could have referred previously have since closed or are at capacity. The South Coast is a legal advice, specifically immigration advice, desert.’
It’s hard to recruit new staff members, Mel explains, as ‘it’s not a hugely attractive sphere for young people to work in. People are overworked, underpaid, and usually insecure in terms of employment contracts and job security.’ It’s not only these practicalities that deter young people. It’s also the environment. Mel tells me: ‘It’s a pretty difficult landscape to be working in, in terms of morale and well-being. It has become its own hostile environment.’
Part of the issue is that ‘wage inflation isn’t reflected in charitable funding,’ Mel explains. ‘We’ve realised that the solution needs to be homegrown and long-term … the only way to get the advisers we need is to train them up ourselves.’ She says that Jo’s report (see above) is ‘really helpful leverage … because it makes the argument really clearly’. The report argues that there is a ‘cost benefit’ for local authority funded or commissioned immigration advice schemes.
This long-term recruitment process is already underway. Voices in Exile works with Sussex University’s Migration Law Clinic, supervised by Jo. Mel is working to restart a scheme that began pre-COVID-19 to encourage students at the clinic to come and gain frontline experience working at Voices in Exile. The idea is that these students will enjoy the work and choose to explore a long-term career in the sector.
‘You start with something narrow, and realise it’s a much bigger project’
In 2015, Brighton became a ‘City of Sanctuary’, joining a network of cities in the UK that have ‘committed to building a culture of hospitality and welcome’. To be awarded this title, the council needed to establish a directory of local organisations and support groups. BHT Sussex Immigration Legal Service, Voices in Exile and the Migration Law Clinic are all part of this list as legal advice providers. Alongside these legal services, there are also organisations that support and campaign for asylum-seekers and migrants.
Thousand 4 £1000 is one such organisation. The charity, set up by Jacob Berkson, aims ‘to be a community response to enforced homelessness amongst forced migrants. We pool small donations from hundreds of people to provide housing and other support to migrants who would otherwise be destitute.’
Jacob explains that he encountered individuals who were struggling to be hosted in Brighton’s network and decided to try fundraising to provide them with rooms. ‘As is often the issue with these things, you start with something you think is going to be kind of narrow and then you realise it’s a much bigger project. There are more people who you want to support and there are all sorts of other needs that people have. We still try to be very true to our roots.’
The organisation has now helped to set up a cafe, the Jollof Cafe, which is ‘a space organised by a group of people who are on the wrong side of the immigration system’. The money it makes from this cafe helps to support destitute asylum-seekers and members of the migrant community. It is also out of this cafe that much of its advice work is done. Once it has found people accommodation, Thousand 4 £1000 then does a huge amount of work to help them through the challenging legal processes.
Jo expresses huge admiration for the work Jacob does: ‘These organisations are phoning around 25 to 30 firms trying to find someone to take on a client. It takes up huge amounts of time in those voluntary sector organisations and it’s so frustrating for the advisers and the clients who, so often, can’t get what they need.’
Description: Lord Alf Dubs visiting the Voices in Exile community kitchen with Mel Steel_Caleb...
Lord Alf Dubs visiting the Voices in Exile community kitchen with Mel Steel (photo: Caleb Yule)
All three interviewees are unwilling to blame Brighton and Hove Council for the problems the city is facing. Mel points to the ‘encouraging’ sign that Bella Sankey, ex-director of Detention Action, is now city council leader. ‘The early signs are positive and suggest that we might be pushing at a little bit more of an open door.’
There is a notable absence of enthusiasm from all parties, especially Jacob, about the housing department and its lack of support with accommodation needs. However, as Jo says, ‘I don’t know how any individual city council could be doing better given the scarcity of resources. You don’t want to let the council off the hook entirely, but equally it’s potentially unrealistic to say the councils have the solutions to this in their hands because a lot of this is down to the Home Office.’
Jacob describes the culture of refusal at the Home Office as ‘absolutely horrific’. ‘The actual solution is of course to just trust the victim, right?’ he says. ‘Just stop having an inquisitorial set of systems. I don’t get it. I get frustrated with the financial arguments as well. Yes, it’s true there isn’t enough money, but it’s precisely because you have chosen that, you don’t want there to be enough money for this issue.’
His frustrations are clear. Every day he deals with people whose applications have been refused because they haven’t had proper representation, who have been forced to represent themselves in complex asylum interviews or who have been left homeless and destitute because of the system, which seems so inherently unkind. Jacob explains that helping people with their appeals is often the hardest part as you have such a short window to help clients get the information and legal support they need (just 14 days to lodge an appeal).
Jo tells me that there is a huge deficit in the number of lawyers willing to take on appeals work. She uses Duncan Lewis Solicitors as an example. ‘They sent out letters to all their existing clients saying if you get a refusal from the Home Office, we are not going to be able to represent you on appeal because we’re at capacity.’
‘What happens when an appeal is rejected?’ I naively ask. ‘You become destitute,’ Jo says, ‘and you stay destitute until someone picks you up and does a fresh claim for you. Or until you get detained and removed or detained and then finally find some legal advice in a detention centre.’ It’s a bleak picture.
Mel draws attention to the immense strain that this kind of work places not only on clients, but also on her staff. ‘It’s hard, really hard … It’s awful when you’re taking on a case, and you’re doing your best to support someone and secure them the entitlements that they deserve and need – and are legally entitled to – and not being able to do it.’
Under LASPO, family reunion for refugees (a right that is protected by both British and international law) was removed from the scope of legal aid. It was recently reported that data from the Refugee and Migrant Forum of Essex and London (Ramfel) shows that between 2019 and 2022, 66 per cent of family reunion applications initially rejected by the Home Office were subsequently accepted on appeal.
Refugee reunion is meant to be a safe, legal route to bring loved ones to the UK, but Mel explains that because of its removal from the scope of LASPO, people are obliged to pay for legal help if they can't access free advice. For many recently resettled people, legal fees are a cost they cannot afford. ‘This stuff, it just absolutely breaks your heart,' Mel says. 'I think every time a new pillar of the hostile environment comes into play, you just must hope that people aren’t going to shoot the messenger.’
She explains that many staff have had to leave due to the emotional burden that this type of work puts on them. ‘We try to put a lot of time into staff and volunteers’ well-being, we celebrate the small wins and small victories because that’s all we’ve got, really.’
Recently, Jacqueline McKenzie, partner and head of immigration and asylum law at Leigh Day, spoke out about how home secretary Suella Braverman had led a ‘flagrant attack on [her] and [her] work, built on misinformation and mischaracterisation and underpinned by racism and misogyny’. She has received support online, with a public statement being released by a group of Black and Brown women. However, this attack on her work and character by Conservative HQ shows how hostile this current government is, not only to refugees and asylum-seekers, but also those who work tirelessly to protect them.
Vision and humanity
So, what is the future of this sector? Jo tells me, ‘We’re seeing people drop out of legal aid work, you know, experienced lawyers walking away because they can’t do it anymore. Organisations can’t train, they can’t recruit, they can’t retain people. You have to think, what’s next? It’s just so difficult to see what will happen if the Ministry of Justice doesn’t do something quickly. There won’t be anything left to save.’
When I ask Mel what needs to change, she looks at me like, ‘Where do I start?’ She lists the problems that desperately need to be fixed: there needs to be an acknowledgement that there are essentially no safe, legal routes; asylum decisions need to be processed faster; people cannot be kept in detention and limbo for years and then face claims they haven’t ‘properly integrated’. The list goes on and she ends it by emphasising that ‘these things should not be controversial and yet they are’.
Mel’s core message, however, is simple, and is echoed by Jacob and Jo. ‘We need to have some vision and humanity.’ Brighton’s advice network demonstrates the best of this country’s humanity towards the most vulnerable people in our society. It is now the responsibility of our politicians to offer the vision. It is only once we have both, that we can hope to solve this crisis and rescue this sector from its perilous position.
Voices in Exile relies heavily on donations to help run its vital services – especially its advice and casework services. To help support its work with refugees, asylum-seekers and vulnerable migrants in and beyond Brighton and Hove, please visit:
To donate to Thousand 4 £1000 and help it house more of Brighton’s most vulnerable people, please visit: