Our new Prime Minister Theresa May famously said that too many people thought of the Tory Party as ‘the nasty party’. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 was one of May’s flagship policies that fitted with her desire to change that view.
May introduced the legislation in ringing terms.
‘The presence of modern slavery in today’s society is an affront to the dignity and humanity of every one of us. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 is an historic milestone. This landmark legislation sends the strongest possible signal to criminals that if you are involved in this vile trade you will be arrested, you will be prosecuted and you will be locked up. And it says to victims, you are not alone – we are here to help you… . As a nation we can be proud that today we are closer to consigning slavery to the history books where it belongs.’
Alas, despite these fine words the Government failed to provide victims with the help they needed and to which they are legally entitled.
The specialist anti-trafficking legal charity, the Anti-Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit (ATLEU), had to bring a successful judicial review to challenge the Government’s failure to comply with the Modern Slavery Act, and other UK and European law protecting victims of trafficking.
Even before the Modern Slavery Act, Parliament made special provision to ensure that victims of trafficking received legal help and assistance to bring compensation claims against their traffickers in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). This was specifically repeated and expanded upon in the Modern Slavery Act.
However, the way that the government agency responsible, the Legal Aid Agency, implemented this law meant that victims of trafficking and modern slavery were unable to access legal advice and assistance to bring claims against their traffickers.
The ability of victims of trafficking and modern slavery to hold their traffickers to account in court has clear benefits for society. But it can also be life changing for individual victims. Victims of trafficking exiting their trafficking situation are very vulnerable. They often have no assets, little working knowledge of wider society and no support network; they are often suffer debilitating physical or mental illness; they may speak little English.
Obtaining desperately needed compensation from their traffickers can turn their lives around. It can break the cycle of exploitation and help them rebuild their lives. The Government agrees, ensuring that there are ‘avenues for victims to receive compensation’ is a key objective in its Modern Slavery Strategy.
Therefore, the Anti-Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit working in partnership with a wide range of organisations launched a legal challenge. ATLEU brought together a broad coalition of civil society from across the country – support agencies, parliamentarians, the office of the Anti-Slavery Commissioner, organisations of survivors of trafficking. The evidence showed that many victims were unable to access advice because of the limited number of legal organisations able to deal with compensation claims and the limited number of such claims each one could handle. For instance ATLEU is only permitted by the Government to bring five cases for victims in the Employment Tribunal every year despite receiving many more referrals; to put this figure in context, 3,266 people were referred into the National Referral Mechanism for victims of trafficking in 2015.
ATLEU brought a judicial review against the Lord Chancellor, R v the Lord Chancellor ex parte Anti-Trafficking Exploitation Unit. At a preliminary hearing in the Admin Court, Mr Justice Blake said it was arguable that the Government’s arrangements amounted to a breach of its duty, under statute, to make legal aid available to victims of trafficking. After permission to pursue the judicial review had been granted, and just before the hearing was due to take place, the Ministry of Justice and Legal Aid Agency agreed to undertake a review by the end of June 2016. Following this concession ATLEU withdrew its claim.
The purpose of the review agreed by the Government was to identify whether there were barriers to advice and assistance and if so the causes of these and what steps should be taken as a result.
The Government agreed that there was ‘considerable urgency in relation to the review’ and stated its aim was to present its recommendations to the Minister for Legal Aid by no later than the end of June and to publish this at the same time.
The Government agreed to implement any recommendations as soon as practicably possible.
The Ministry of Justice has now failed to meet this deadline. It states that it hopes to publish the review by the end of this session of Parliament.
The cases that ATLEU has been able to bring illustrate the level of exploitation of victims of trafficking and how life changing compensation claims can be.
ATLEU assisted Permila Tirkey to bring a compensation case against her former traffickers Mr and Mrs Chandok. Ms Tirkey was held in domestic servitude for four and a half years. She worked seven days a week, 18 hours a day; slept on the floor; and she was not allowed to contact her family. She was paid just 11p an hour.
ATLEU brought claims for the national minimum wage and caste discrimination and the tribunal awarded Ms Tirkey £266,000. The stark fact is that if Ms Tirkey sought advice today, ATLEU would not be able to help her with her claim because of the Government’s inadequate provision of Legal Aid for victims of trafficking and modern slavery.
The spotlight is now on the Ministry of Justice and the Prime Minster herself to ensure that justice is done and victims get the support that they were promised and to which they are legally entitled.
ATLEU won the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year award for the best legal not for profit last week (here)