Access to Justice, Refugee Action’s new research project into problems with the asylum legal aid system, is launching soon – and we need your support to make it a success. In this blog, asylum laywer Jean-Benoit Louveaux explains how the project came to be and what he hopes it will achieve.
Between June 2007 and March 2011, I ran a research project into refusals of Legal Aid to asylum seekers in Devon and Cornwall. The project found that 4 out of every 5 asylum seekers we saw had been wrongly refused Legal Aid by their lawyer. Refugee Action is now launching a national project, Access to Justice, to show that these figures are not just confined to the South West.
Legal Aid matters and it matters most to those who need it the most. Most asylum seekers have neither the financial, emotional or legal capacity to adequately represent their case to UKBA, let alone to an Immigration Judge. It is surely absurd to expect someone who is disorientated, often traumatised and who might not understand English well to be able to understand the English legal system. I have been working within that system for the past fifteen years, and even I am far from mastering it completely.
Problems with legal support for asylum seekers originate from a system intended to stop lawyers being overly greedy by setting a fixed fee per Legal Aid case to prevent extortionate claims. This meant that the fee a lawyer would receive for a case would be the same, regardless of how much work they put into it. A diligent lawyer who did their best for their clients would therefore be paid the same as an unscrupulous one who did the absolute minimum. The sad tale we hear from our clients up and down the country is all too familiar: “My lawyer won’t help me.”
The system clearly needs to change, and even the UK Border Agency (UKBA) have begun to recognise this. For the past year, they have been funding the Early Legal Advice Project, which explores the difference that a properly funded Legal Aid system might make. Evidence suggests that helping asylum seekers to make their case fully helps UKBA to get its decisions right and therefore avoids the expense of unnecessary appeals. A quarter of all UKBA decisions are over-turned on appeal, but that number could be significantly reduced if proper legal support for asylum cases was available.
So where does Access to Justice fit in? Firstly, we hope it will show that the existing Legal Aid system is not working, and that the huge proportion of asylum seekers being wrongly refused Legal Aid is a direct consequence of that. Secondly, it will help those who are wrongly refused support to find decent lawyers to represent them. Although we will not have the capacity to help everyone, for those that we can help it could literally make the difference between life and death: protection in this country or being forced back to the country they fled persecution from. Thirdly, and most importantly, we hope to use the project’s findings to change the current Legal Aid system, to encourage better practice, and to bring about a Legal Aid system that gives every asylum seeker the means to present their case for asylum.
We are currently raising funds to support Access to Justice. If you can make a donation, please visit our Latest Appeal page.
Posted by Eleanor Dean