For migrants, April Fools’ Day this year was catastrophic rather than funny. It marked the implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), which removed 96 per cent of all immigration work from the scope of legal aid. The remaining 4 per cent – essentially asylum representation and assistance for some victims of domestic violence – will not be sufficient to sustain the existence of law firms specialising in legal aid-funded immigration law. Many offices are therefore likely to close down, or simply stop providing publicly funded help to migrants.
LASPO also abolished access to legal aid for people struggling to access welfare benefit payments. This occurred on the very day that the UK’s benefits system began to be subjected to a process of dramatic overhaul, with existing benefit payments transferred to the new “Universal Credit” system. While many migrants are largely without recourse to public funds and consequently without access to welfare benefits, those granted leave to remain in the UK may well be eligible. Already, many support agencies are dealing with families left in destitution following the unlawful withholding of welfare payments. The consequences of this can be fatal, as it was for Mrs E.G. and her infant son, who starved to death in Westminster having been recognised as refugees in need of protection. There is now no legal possibility of challenging the Department of Work and Pensions for such unlawful practice.
The Government’s consultation paper, Transforming Legal Aid: Delivering a more credible and efficient system, proposes more dramatic cuts to the system and –perhaps most disastrously for migrants – the introduction of a “residence test”. This will remove the right to Legal Aid for people who cannot prove that they have been lawfully resident for 12 months. While asylum-seekers are excluded from the terms,of the residence test, those who have been failed by the asylum system will be affected, as will recognised refugees and many other migrants.
This matters, not least because evidence suggests that the Home Office routinely breaches its legal duties towards refused asylum-seekers, failing properly to apply the Immigration Rules where refused applicants request new evidence to be considered as a fresh asylum claim.
It is also clear that the Home Office’s decision-making processes are far from robust, and that case-workers are not always as well-informed as they might be. One Home Office refusal letter handed to me by a client, for example, referred to Lebanon as “a city in Palestine”. In such instances, judicial review is the only route to justice. Yet if the proposed measures become law, even this final course of redress will be removed, leaving vulnerable individuals entirely at the mercy of unaccountable and poorly informed officials.
Sadly, the period in which responses to the consultation were invited has now ended. But the battle is far from over. On 27 June a debate on the proposal in the House of Commons was followed by a debate on 11 July in the Lords. The impact is still not clear, but it is not too late to make your voice heard. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has opened an inquiry into the proposed changes. Deadline for submissions is 27 September.
Article by: Dave Stamp, Project manager and immigration advisor at ASIRT(asylum support and immigration support team) in Birmingham Photo by: Fondazione Cariplo.