Around 500 staff and volunteers at organisations offering support to migrants have undertaken Refugee Action’s ground-breaking online immigration law training. Its aim is to increase the number of accredited advisers nationwide, to ensure more vulnerable people have access to high quality legal advice. Fiona Bawdon reports. Fiona is head of communications at The Legal Education Foundation.
Immigration law is one of the few areas of legal practice where it is a criminal offence for anyone who isn’t accredited to give advice (even if the advice is accurate). Advisers must be either legally qualified and regulated, or registered with the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC). Anyone who falsely holds themselves out as qualified to advise on immigration law risks criminal prosecution; the worst offenders will go to prison. Immigration is also an area of law where the number of people needing advice vastly outstrips the number of qualified advisers available.
In some areas of the country, there are now no immigration law advisers at all (or none offering a free service). As a result, migrants are left unable to access legal support, or having to travel long distances to get it. For migrants of all kinds, building a life in the UK is contingent on securing their immigration status; most will need expert help to navigate the complexities of Home Office application processes. Without legal input, applications may be incomplete, inaccurate or delayed, leaving those who would be entitled to regularise their status, facing destitution, as they are unable to work or claim welfare support, or at risk of removal back to a country where they are not safe.
A survey by Refugee Action and NACCOM (No Accommodation Network) found that 76% of 92 organisations surveyed were finding it difficult to refer people needing immigration advice on to legal representatives; 86% said finding places to refer people was more difficult now, than it had been before the cuts introduced by the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing & Punishment of Offenders Act.
Even areas which had advisers available on paper, lacked them in reality, due to solicitors firms already being overwhelmed and unable to take on more work, particularly cases which were time-consuming or complex. Refugee Action says the Legal Aid Agency’s own data shows that half of asylum and immigration legal aid providers were lost between 2005 and 2018; the drop in not-for-profit providers was even higher, at 65%.
It was against this backdrop that in 2016 Refugee Action launched its Frontline Immigration Advice Project. Refugee Action’s Carolina Albuerne says: ‘Frontline is our response to the lack of accessible and good quality immigration advice for people who need it in different parts of the country.’
The scheme is premised on the belief that it is a false economy to restrict access to early advice: people who are unable to present their best possible case at the outset (because they didn’t have legal advice), will often go on to appeal if their application is refused, which is a more complex and costly process, both financially and in terms of the toll on the individual. Frontline aims to equip charities and support groups which are already working closely with migrants to be able to add legal advice to their menu of services.
Since its launch, Frontline has trained staff and volunteers at 150 different organisations working with vulnerable migrants across the whole of the UK. Carolina, who is Refugee Action’s good practice and partnership manager, describes the scale of the project: ‘We are working in Northern Ireland, in Scotland, England and Wales; all of the immigration dispersal areas within England. We’ve got six Citizens Advice on the programme; we’ve got Law Centres; we’ve got disability organisations; we’ve got, of course, women’s organisations; organisations working with young people – and we even have organisations that focus around teaching English as a second language. We are also working with homelessness organisations and organisations working with EU migrants only.’
Many of these are charities which had long wanted to be able to provide legal advice, but who found the registration process too onerous to undertake. Carolina says: ‘Becoming registered with OISC can be impractical, very daunting, for organisations. It’s quite resource intensive.’
Her colleague, James Conyers, Frontline’s student support manager, agrees that such caution was understandable. He likens the OISC training to ‘doing an A-level in a week – only you are thinking at a higher level than you are for A-level’. It is not, he adds, ‘remotely for the faint-hearted’.
Refugee Action’s challenge with Frontline, therefore, was to create a training programme for people with no legal background, which delivered complex information in suitably digestible chunks, and which was a high enough standard to prepare students to pass OISC’s exacting accreditation process.
The resulting programme, offered free, covers OISC levels 1 and 2, and is done over five days. All training is online, including by live webinars, which are recorded so they can be watched again in students’ own time. The course material (‘pages and pages and pages’, according to Carolina) is broken down into modules, with quizzes and other activities. It also includes advice on how to revise, and on how to craft a good written answer.
James says, on average, around five Frontline students a month are passing the accreditation, and there is always excitement in the Refugee Action office each time they are alerted to a new one.
Once students are accredited and have begun advising, Frontline’s support continues in the form of regularly updated revision modules, and one-to-one coaching and consultancy from James, who is OISC level 3 accredited. There is a steady flow of inquiries (three had come in the day before we met), which suggests students find this back up useful. Even if James doesn’t know the answer instantly, his long experience means he knows where to look for it, he says.
‘One of the problems with immigration law is that it is getting progressively more and more complicated. We have court judgments where judges say they can’t understand it, that it is byzantine,’ he says.
Frontline’s response to having to build a course based on constantly shifting sands is to teach not just the law but problem-solving skills, so students learn how to find the latest information. Content on its web platform is constantly updated, and so provides a valuable resource.
The success of the project bears out TLEF’s belief in the value of technology. Carolina says Frontline has been a gamechanger for Refugee Action: ‘What TLEF does really well is, you are very interested in digital, and I have to say this project has allowed us to be really transformative. We knew we had to be lean, and we had to be producing something that was scalable, but we didn’t know enough about digital. Now, we are in a position where we are advising other organisations, and we are talking to people about it, about the process that we have been through.’
She believes the project will bring wider benefits. ‘Everyone was saying, ‘People don’t want this online.’Now, we can say, “We are training just under 500 advisers across the country – evenly split between volunteers and staff.” Our evaluators are the Open University’s School of Technology and Learning. One of the things we’re asking is, “Is this your first webinar?” We are opening this up because we want to encourage people to do online learning more and more. No one is going to fund people to travel miles around the country. No one has the money to do that now. So the platform is something we want to share and keep evolving.’
Carolina stresses that, although a convert to the potential of digital, Refugee Action understands not everyone shares their enthusiasm. The programme has a high degree of handholding built in to accommodate students who are less at home with technology. ‘We do webinar testing where we make sure we call students before and we run through it with them. Often, I hear my staff on the phone while they are trying to connect with somebody on screen.’
Any project this innovative was bound to bump up against issues as it evolves, and Frontline is no exception. After it had been running for a while, Refugee Action noted a drop off in the numbers of students going on to become advisers, compared with the numbers embarking on the training.
Refugee Action realised that, as well as focusing on meeting the needs of students, they also needed to work more closely with the organisations. A new post of partnership development manager was created, which was filled by Fiona Cameron, who came to the role with a wealth of experience in the immigration sector. One of Fiona’s first tasks was to talk to organisations to understand why, despite putting people through the Frontline course, they hadn’t gone on to become OISC registered, and so were still unable to give immigration advice.
Inevitably, the hurdles to registration some organisations faced were far outside Refugee Action’s capability to resolve (hoped for funding failing to materialise; disruption caused by the Grenfell Fire). For others, however, with encouragement from Fiona and a more step-by -step approach, they could be supported to go on to successfully register. Fiona says: ‘We want to make sure people are serious about it. We are mapping the process, so when organisations are thinking of applying to Frontline, they will be able to see this is what we do for you as an organisation.’
Often, the failure to register was because of a mismatch in timing. Fiona explains: ‘To become registered, the organisation has to be ready at exactly the same time as the person has passed their exam. We are now working much harder to try to align that. It’s really about ensuring you don’t just have individuals going off to do the training, but you also have an organisation that understands what the training is for and has a commitment to putting that training into practice. So, now we have developed action plans, and sign offs, so the organisation is formally saying, “Yes. We understand we have a commitment to you, as well as your having one to us.'”
Carolina says Frontline’s ethos now is to support students and organisations equally. ‘We have a belief that if we don’t do it this way, the advisers will not be supported and therefore the investment in support and training would not be sustainable.’
Frontline’s next challenge is strengthening its post-accreditation support. James says there are particular pressures on advisers based in non-legal organisations, where law-related issues are only a small aspect of the work. ‘If you imagine a person working in a law firm, after their training, they would be seeing cases on a day to day basis, and be able to ask their colleagues for help. The people we are training have none of that support network and often they are not seeing the work day to day.’
Carolina says: ‘Training on its own isn’t enough; getting them to the assessment isn’t enough. We have all these people who are advising on legal matters for the first time, so it is about creating communities of practice, both online and in person.’
Case study 1: Brushstrokes Community Project
Last year, Brushstrokes, a charity based in Smethwick, West Midlands, supported 1,200 migrants from 78 different nationalities. It offers a mix of English language, advocacy and other services, including practical support, such as baby packs for new mothers. Project manager David Newall says: ‘What sets us apart locally is we deliver those services in a holistic way, so people can dip in and out, and that we do proactive outreach. We go out and find individuals, we don’t just wait for them to come to us.’
Brushstrokes was already offering immigration law advice, thanks to the dedication of a long-term volunteer solicitor, who offers a weekly clinic, which is invariably oversubscribed (so much so that Brushstrokes had to limit to 20 the number of clients he sees each time). Given the demand and Brushstokes’ belief in offering a holistic service, David was keen to increase its immigration law capacity, but could see no way of doing so. ‘The work is unfunded. We don’t have a paid immigration adviser. We don’t have money to send people on expensive training courses.’ A chance meeting with a Refugee Action staff member, who told him about the Frontline scheme, changed all of that. ‘It was a great opportunity for us.’
The plan is to use the Frontline training to supplement the work of the volunteer, and increase the number and location of advice sessions it offers. That would reduce the risk of referral fatigue and the need for clients to travel long distances to get advice. ‘There are asylum seekers dispersed all over a wide area and it’s quite difficult for some of them to navigate several buses to get to us. Obviously, if you are destitute, you have to walk, anyway.’
To date, two staff members and one volunteer have completed the training; two more staff and another volunteer are about to start the course. One of the staff members who did the training has subsequently left Brushstrokes, but David is philosophical about the departure: some people will inevitably move on but, as his ex-colleague has joined another OISC-registered organisation, the Frontline training has still created a win for the sector overall.
With support from Frontline, Brushstrokes is now OISC registered and passed its first audit. David says registration will be helpful for securing additional funding, and being part
of the project meant it could share with other organisations what it learned from the experience of being audited.
He hopes this will lead to some kind of broader local network or support base to reduce the isolation of immigration law advisers working in non-legal organisations. He adds: ‘I think there’s a lot of learning and good practice from this project that could be used to support newer organisations that are working with EU migrants, particularly in terms of the impact of Brexit.’
Case study 2: Refugee Support Devon
Refugee Support Devon is a small charity in Exeter offering a wide range of support to migrants – ranging from befriending, to English language classes, to food grown on
its community allotment. More recently, thanks to the Frontline project, it has been able to add legal advice to the services it can offer.
RSD casework coordinator Nelida Montes de Oca, says her organisation had previously looked at becoming OISC registered but had ‘been intimidated by the whole process and didn’t know where to start’. When RSD heard about the Frontline scheme, they jumped at the chance. She and three volunteers have now completed the training and are accredited to give level 1 advice.
It was, she says, one of her first experiences of online training. ‘I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but everything worked fine at both ends. There was a lot of information, but the pace of training was good. There was enough time to ask questions. It was a very, very good experience.’
The training has enabled RSD to introduce a weekly, two-hour, legal clinic, with one or two clients being seen each time. The scheme is still in its earliest stages, and to date around a dozen people have been seen. That may seem relatively modest, but that is 12 people (or families) being given potentially life-changing advice and support, who might otherwise have been turned away empty handed. With the closest legal aid immigration solicitor many miles away in Plymouth, previously the only options for RSD were to try to refer people to its busy local Citizens Advice or, if an individual had money to pay, to one of the handful of local law firms still doing immigration work.
Nelida has also been able to share the knowledge she gained from Frontline more widely. ‘I was asked to give a short presentation to foster parents that are supporting asylum seeking children in Devon, just to give them an idea of the asylum process. It was very helpful having that training, and I based my talk on some of the course materials.’
She adds: ‘Realistically, without the help of Refugee Action, it would have been very difficult for us to go through this process. They have been very helpful and it is also great to know that if we have a question about cases, we can email them and get a response.’
A version of this article will appear in TLEF’s forthcoming 2018 Annual Review, to be published in early January 2019.