The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) significantly limited the availability of legal aid for immigration advice in England and Wales. Under LASPO, only specific types of immigration cases remain in-scope (including asylum and asylum support applications, some cases involving trafficking, domestic violence or detention, proceedings in the Special Immigration Appeals Commission and applications for judicial review). Other categories of immigration case are only eligible for legal aid if granted through the ‘Exceptional Case Funding’ (ECF) scheme.
During my PhD research I met many people seeking assistance with their immigration matters who have found it difficult to secure advice and representation. For my research I volunteered at a refugee community organisation in the South West of England, which is a point of contact for people seeking information and assistance in securing advice. I interviewed individuals who were willing to speak about their experiences, as well as representatives from other local advice agencies and community organisations. In this article I re-tell some of the stories that I heard.
In December 2016 I met with Mariam, a woman who had been seeking assistance because she was destitute. She had accrued a significant amount of debt paying for a private solicitor to make an immigration application for her and her children. Mariam told me why she had felt it was important for her to get legal assistance with her case, rather than representing herself:
‘When you see a solicitor – an immigration solicitor – you are just a layman. You don’t know anything about an immigration case. And when the solicitor tells you: “Oh yeah, this is what you qualify for, and that is true” it helps you to know where you stand. It helps you to know the possibilities for your case – whether you might get this status, or you might have to wait longer for that, or those sorts of things. And nobody wants to go back to a place where they were scared.’
Initially Mariam had been able to afford to pay for the advice, but the solicitor made a mistake with Mariam’s first application to the Home Office. The solicitor told her that she would have to re-apply, and she would have to pay the solicitor fees and Home Office application fees again.
Mariam was upset that she would have to pay the solicitor to do the same work again, even though it had been their mistake, but she felt that she had no choice but to continue to use them. They had started the work on her case, and they knew more about it than anyone else. Even if she moved to another firm she would have had to pay again. She did not have the money to travel to see a solicitor that was further away, and with her young children in school it would have been too difficult to arrange appointments that she needed to travel to. Mariam says it was hard for her, but she ‘just had to use them’.
Around the same time, Mariam’s partner stopped working. They no longer had money to pay the solicitor and got into debt, which led to them becoming homeless. For Mariam, the lack of choice for immigration advice had significant consequences, as she ended up doing much of the work herself. She eventually received status for her and her children.
When I spoke to Ali, a refugee from Iran, he told me that it took him 11 years to get refugee status, and he spent about seven years of that without any legal representation. He described how difficult he had found the experience:
‘I was very unhappy, and it was upsetting. It was very bad because I didn’t have accommodation and I couldn’t work. I didn’t have a place to sleep or to stay. I slept outside for days, for weeks I was outside. For just two years I had my own place to live, and for the rest I was out in different places. Now I forget things. I don’t remember everything. Maybe it was the situation affected my brain. Many nasty, unhappy things happened. It is not nice, you live in a country and you don’t have rights to work or to get any rights.’
Whilst Ali had no solicitor there was no progress on his case, and he was destitute. In the end Ali found another solicitor, but the solicitor told him he would need an address in London for them to be able to work for him. Ali had to move away from the South West of England where he had been living, to London, in order to access legal aid. After he secured the new solicitor he successfully appealed a Home Office decision and received his refugee status.
When I met Ibrahim he had been living in the UK as an undocumented migrant for nearly 20 years. Originally from West Africa, Ibrahim was sent to the UK by his parents as a teenager with a man he called his ‘stepdad’, although he was not really sure who this man was, or his real relationship to him. The man was abusive and controlling, and Ibrahim lived in constant fear. Eventually Ibrahim managed to get away from the man, and started a new life with a British partner. Although no longer together, Ibrahim had children from the relationship, and he continued to play an active part in their upbringing.
Ibrahim had tried to get advice a couple of times in the past, but could not afford to pay a private solicitor:
‘When I had some initial advice from a solicitor a couple of years ago, the reason I didn’t use it was because it was bit expensive for me. I didn’t have the right amount of money, because it was around £1,500, or nearly £1,800.’
Ibrahim was worried about getting in touch with the Home Office without a representative in case his application was rejected, which could lead to him being detained or removed from the UK. However, he had recently been made homeless, and had no income and no access to public funds. He was relying on the goodwill of friends, and was urgently in need of assistance with his immigration application. When we spoke, he was waiting for a decision on his ECF application. Even if ECF was granted, Ibrahim would still need to find a legal aid provider to take on his case.
Why is immigration advice important?
Access to immigration advice is necessary to protect the rights of migrants, because it allows individuals to contest the restrictive practices of state border controls through legal avenues. Immigration law is often highly complex, and where cases concern the protection of fundamental human rights, the stakes are particularly high. Some of the issues around access to legal aid pre-date LASPO, but the cuts to immigration legal aid have compounded the difficulties faced by individuals seeking advice. My research shows that where legal aid for immigration matters is not easily accessible it can have serious social consequences for individuals, often cutting across other social issues such as homelessness and debt. For people like Mariam, Ali and Ibrahim, being able to secure good quality legal assistance can make the difference between being given the right to reside in the UK, or living in fear of being returned to another country.