A new report by a Welsh think tank found that Wales has lost almost half its premises providing immigration legal services since 2018. It cautions that South East Wales is in danger of becoming an advice desert.
The Bevan Foundation’s Access to Justice project is working to increase access to immigration advice and legal representation in Wales. It found that the immigration legal aid market in Wales now relies heavily on a single provider. This year, an immigration legal aid firm was forced to close its legal aid office in Cardiff. This firm had been responsible for opening 47% of cases in Cardiff, and nearly a quarter of all in Wales in 2022-23. They have been unable to refer their caseload to other providers.
The report found that providers are struggling under financial pressures caused by legal aid fees and billing structures, which make it unsustainable for a business to deliver services under legal aid.
The collapse of the immigration legal aid sector is having a major impact on the capacity of other legal providers. Many providers of free immigration advice are currently either closed to new referrals or considering suspending them. This means that most low-income non-asylum applicants are unable to access justice, even where there is a risk that their human rights will be breached.
As a result, the report also highlights that providers are experiencing psychological pressure and suffering from stress.
The report makes a number of urgent and immediate recommendations directed to the Legal Aid Agency (LAA). These include prioritising help and advice for providers who are at risk of not delivering contracts and implementing strong contingency planning, anticipating and acting to prevent the closure of further providers.
The report recommends that the LAA and Welsh Government should provide emergency funding to maintain legal aid provision in Wales and facilitate access to immigration legal advice and representation. It also calls upon the Home Office to increase the speed of asylum decision-making and to implement a strategy for planned reduction of the backlog, as well as increasing timescales for appeal. The project lead for the Bevan Foundation, Isata Kanneh, for Newyddion S4C, said that ‘because it is the UK Government who is responsible for legal aid, it is easy to ignore things in Wales and wait for change to come from the outside. Legal aid must be reformed, but there are steps that could be taken in Wales, now, to keep people safe, and to defend legal and human rights.’
Elinor Mattey, Access to Justice Policy Officer at the Bevan Foundation, also warned that ‘there is no suggestion that this decline will slow down unless immediate steps are taken. If not, the whole of Wales will turn into an advice desert.’
The Bevan Foundation is an independent think tank that create insights, ideas and impact that help to end poverty and inequality.