No access to justice: How legal advice deserts fail refugees, migrants and our communities
Legal aid expert Dr Jo Wilding was commissioned by Refugee Action to research and write a report mapping legal aid provision for people seeking asylum across the UK. It aims to inform the strategy and operations of Refugee Action’s OISC immigration advice training programme: the Frontline Immigration Advice Project, as well as immigration advice infrastructure development in the wider migration sector. This builds on the report commissioned by PHF and Justice Together about the demand for and supply of immigration legal advice in London. Jo outlines her latest findings in this abridged blog.
In every part of England and Wales, there is a deficit between the need for immigration and asylum legal advice and the provision available. There is not enough legal aid provision to meet even the need which is clearly eligible for legal aid (without an application for exceptional funding).
The North West of England has numerically the largest deficit, despite having the second-highest amount of legal aid provision. Across England and Wales as a whole, there is a deficit of at least 6,000 for asylum applications alone – which is just one of the reasons why remote advice is not an adequate solution to the supply problems.
The UK Regional Immigration Advice Mapping Project (UKRIAM) aimed to understand the need for immigration and asylum legal advice in all parts of the UK, and how much provision, of what type, is out there to meet that need. The research looked at geographical patterns of both need and provision: What drives the need for advice in a particular region, and what determines whether advice is available? And if supply is not meeting demand, what are the obstacles preventing expansion?
Northern Ireland and Scotland have separate legal aid systems from England and Wales. Both NI and Scotland still have legal aid for the full range of immigration and asylum matters, if the client’s financial means are low enough. In England and Wales, the scope of legal aid is very restrictive, essentially covering only asylum and protection cases, detention, some trafficking work, and domestic violence cases, with judicial review work funded only if it succeeds (on various criteria).
In Northern Ireland, despite the broader scope of legal aid, and despite all solicitors being permitted to do immigration legal aid work without registration or regulatory barriers, very few firms actually take immigration cases. Although 99 firms appeared on the Law Society NI’s finder at the start of the research, only nine requested to be on the Law Society’s list of those which do immigration and asylum legal aid work in practice. This has left inadequate provision for around 825 asylum applicants accommodated in NI, let alone any other eligible need.
Scotland has a larger population of legal aid providers than NI, but they are heavily concentrated in Glasgow, which is also the only asylum dispersal area in Scotland at the time of writing. That means that people outside Glasgow with non-asylum related needs are likely to have to travel for advice, or access it remotely.
Numerically, by far the greatest need is outside the scope of legal aid: every region has at least twice as many people undocumented (ie with no leave to remain) as in asylum support. The South East of England (excluding London) has an estimated 62,500 undocumented people, compared with 900 people in asylum support; Scotland has almost 22,500 undocumented people compared with 4,000 people in asylum support. People may be undocumented for a variety of reasons – overstaying a visa, or being unable to renew leave in time, losing the job to which their work permit related, or being refused a visa or asylum but not leaving the country.
Meanwhile the UK’s departure from the EU brought millions of people into the scope of immigration control for the first time. In every region and nation there are tens or hundreds of thousands of people with pre-settled status, which limits their rights to benefits and will require them to pro-actively upgrade to settled status when eligible. And in every region and nation there are thousands, or tens of thousands, of people who received ‘other outcomes’ from an EUSS application, leaving them with no status at all. Those who are re-applying have lost their EU-related rights in the meantime.
The very limited scope of legal aid in England and Wales means that free or low-cost non-legal aid advice is much more important than in Scotland or Northern Ireland. Yet, just as the sister report for London showed, there is a severe shortage of accredited advice organisations across most of the UK. Wales, for example, has only one organisation accredited at Level 3 and one at Level 2 of the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC) framework. These are both in Cardiff, and each has only one full-time caseworker employed, meaning they can only deal with tiny fractions of the need. Typically, these organisations rely on grant-funding, which rarely lasts more than three years , making it very difficult to train, supervise and retain new staff. The difficulties around training, in turn, have caused a recruitment crisis at all levels throughout the UK.
The research offers a detailed account of the current geography and economics of immigration and asylum legal advice need and provision across the UK, with a national picture followed by a section for each region or nation. We hope it will be a useful resource for funders, advice provider organisations, and government bodies to understand and start to resolve the serious deficit between need and provision.
This is an abridged version of the blog commissioned by Refugee Action