Charity warns Alex Chalk to act over legal aid for immigration and asylum

The availability of legal aid for immigration and asylum in England and Wales is so poor that the lord chancellor is in breach of his duty to provide access to justice, according to a letter threatening him with legal action.

The letter, sent to Alex Chalk by Public Law Project (PLP), says there are particular shortages in north-west and south-west England, the latter having capacity for fewer than 300 cases a year despite being home to the Bibby Stockholm, which can house about 500 people.

The PLP found that charities supporting refugees and asylum seekers it spoke to for an accompanying report made 16 attempts on average before securing a legal aid lawyer. In London, which has the highest number of providers, a refugee charity was able to successfully refer clients in only 4.1% of 864 attempts.

Daniel Rourke, PLP’s lead lawyer, said: “Our immigration system needs legal aid to ensure that fair decisions are made. Without it, the Home Office and [immigration] tribunal risk making decisions that condemn people to persecution abroad, or destitution in the UK due to ‘hostile environment’ measures.

“Our report shows that the provision of legal aid is shrinking as the demand is growing. There are no plans on the horizon that will change either of those trends. For over a decade, PLP has attempted to persuade the Ministry of Justice to make the legal aid scheme accessible to those who need it and sustainable enough for legal practitioners to provide it. PLP has not taken this step lightly.”

PLP would demand that the lord chancellor take urgent action, Rourke said, and “reluctantly prepare legal proceedings” if he failed to carry our his statutory and constitutional duties.

The 27-page letter, the first step in bringing a judicial review against Chalk, says that he is failing his legal duty under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (Laspo).

PLP’s accompanying report, Oceans of Unmet Need, found that six providers of immigration and asylum legal aid had recently either ceased trading or stopped offering legal aid in south-west England, while 4,827 asylum seekers had been dispersed to accommodation in the region as of June 2023. Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are also placed into local authority care in the south-west (390 last year).

Rourke said: “In many parts of the country, there are no immigration and asylum legal aid lawyers left. The largest private firms providing legal aid in this area of law do so at a loss. They are subsidising the taxpayer and cannot increase their capacity.

“This type of legal aid helps people escaping trauma, such as persecution, trafficking, and domestic abuse, to present their cases to the Home Office or appeal to the tribunal.”

A government spokesperson said it had invested £44m in the last year in immigration legal aid, adding:As a result of our action, the number of providers has increased in recent months, from 153 in March to 173 in September. We are also consulting on a 15% pay increase for work done under the new Illegal Migration Act.

“The Legal Aid Agency regularly monitors capacity in the legal aid market, taking immediate action if gaps appear, and the Ministry of Justice is reviewing the system to ensure it is sustainable well into the future.”

The Guardian

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