Proposed Legal Aid Cuts- How will they affect you?
Proposed Legal Aid Cuts- How will they affect you?
Blogging around the campaigns- NCADC volunteers explore some of the latest issue affecting migrant rights
David Shortland, NCADC Campaigns Volunteer
The Ministry of Justice is currently consulting on cutting the Legal Aid Budget by £250 million. The deadline for responses is 14 February 2010, by 12pm. Numbers matter and responses matter- so don’t wait- send in a response today! Click here to participate in the consultation and let the government know how legal aid cuts will affect you.
As part of its proposal, the Government intends to remove legal aid for immigration matters (as opposed to asylum) cases completely. (Oddly, however, those in immigration detention would still get legal aid to challenge their detention, but not to help with their cases). The immigration cases affected will include those based on basic rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, such as those to family and private life. The underlying approach is that those seeking legal aid should demonstrate an even greater level of poverty before being eligible.
“Cases such as refugee family reunion, cases involving victims of domestic violence, deportation and other family applications usually involve complex legal issues including the Article 8 right to family life and are of profound importance to the applicant. It is not feasible for applicants to represent themselves on these issues and there is no alternative to specialist advice as it is a legal requirement for all immigration advisors who are not solicitors or barristers to be accredited.” (The Law Society)
In light of such a flagrant disregard of fundamental procedural rights, one could be forgiven for thinking that the UK is not a signatory to the Convention – of course, given the Coalition Government’s approach to human rights and the European system thus far, it may only be a matter of time.
In a democratic society, all citizens have a right to access justice and to a fair trial. Legal aid is absolutely central in providing this access by ensuring equality before the law. Aside from this, it is wholly unreasonable to expect people involved in immigration cases to represent themselves due to their lack of familiarity with UK law, their lack of support networks here and their rights as prescribed in international and domestic law. The law surrounding immigration is vast and complicated. The Supreme Court, and its predecessor the House of Lords, whose work is confined to deciding the most complex points of law, has given more judgments on Article 8 in recent years than on almost any other area of law.
It is illegal in the UK to give immigration advice as a business unless you are a solicitor or barrister or are registered with the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC). The proposal to cut legal aid in immigration cases will, therefore, leave those involved with no other option but to seek help from the small voluntary organisations registered with the OISC, whose capacity to deal with these cases is already overstretched- not to mention that most charities and NGOs are also experiencing detrimental government cuts. As the Refugee Council reports, funding for vital advice services for refugees and asylum seekers in the UK will be slashed by over 60% from 1st April 2011. These are the front-line services on which immigrants and asylum seekers are expected to depend, once legal aid is cut. It is irresponsible to the point of incompetence to expect the remaining provisions to be sufficient.
It is not an unfair assumption that, if forced into a corner and given access to no assistance, a person may be put at risk in seeking to raise the necessary money to pay for legal representation. Even then, it is likely that bogus ‘lawyers’ will seek to take advantage of this burgeoning ‘market’ of clients and make a profit by providing fraudulent legal advice. The help of the state is absolutely vital in order to allow for the provision of proper legal assistance. Otherwise, it will be only very specific particular cases, with the potential to develop case-law, that will make it to the top of the pile.
Frances Pilling, the Legal Manager at Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID), has stated that the present provision of legal advice is already inadequate. She said, “The planned cuts would affect those with immigration appeals based on rights to family and private life. Those unable to appeal not currently detained would be liable to detention, thus increasing the number of people locked up indefinitely without access to good quality legal advice. Also, asylum seekers would be unable to challenge a refusal to provide help with housing and subsistence, increasing homelessness and destitution.”
Certainly, cuts must be made, but to destroy a fundamental pillar of democratic society such as legal aid is legally and morally wrong. As legal aid solicitor Helen Grant writes, “Our country’s financial health is a priority, but not at the cost of basic social justice. Perhaps we should be thinking more laterally and look to other government departments to share the responsibility.”