Immigration advice deserts: Can we reverse the trend?

Published: 24 July 2020 
Author: Saira Grant 

Author of An overview of immigration advice services in England and Wales’, Saira Grant explains how the report evolved and the increased relevance of the findings in the context of COVID-19.

In August 2018, Paul Hamlyn Foundation (PHF) started looking in detail at the structure and shape of the immigration advice sector. Various pieces of work were commissioned to obtain robust data sets to help formulate thinking around funding work in this area. My brief was to look at the level of unmet need for immigration legal advice and to assess if the evidence showed there was a need to increase free immigration provision to support vulnerable people. This was within the context of the impending change of immigration status for European Union citizens. My report was not initially for publication but rather a piece of work that would inform PHF’s discussions with other trusts and foundations on a strategic response to bolstering immigration legal advice. However, unpicking unmet legal need requires an understanding of who has that need and why and who is qualified to provide legal advice and to what extent. Thus, a short paper evolved into this report, which I am delighted is now being published.

Immigration law and policy moves fast, but the political turmoil at the time of writing was furious. While writing the initial report, we were caught up in the Brexit debate with uncertainty abound on whether we were actually going to leave or not, the possibility of a second referendum, crucial votes on the Brexit deal in which the government was repeatedly defeated, two extensions to our date of departure from the European Union and then finally a general election followed by the UK eventually leaving the EU on 31 January 2020. The rights of European citizens were heavily debated — and often presented as a bargaining chip in the fraught negotiations — and the pilot of the EU Settlement Scheme was finally launched. This report had to be updated several times, and I thank Alex Sutton and Jonathan Price for their input during this process.

However, this all seems like a distant memory with the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown affecting all of us, including the provision of legal services, in an unprecedented way. As we slowly emerge from this crisis, the context in which this report was commissioned has certainly changed, but its fundamental finding — that there are very real immigration advice deserts — remains as pertinent as ever and the pandemic will sadly worsen not improve things.

The recent lockdown and the social distancing rules that are now in place will only serve to heighten the difficulties vulnerable people will face in accessing good quality legal advice in an area of law where need considerably outstrips supply. I know those working in this sector are doing so with incredible resilience and creativity, and they need all the help they can get.

I hope this report will shine a light on the need for good quality immigration representation, and the plight of a sector working for the good of all human beings, no matter what their country of origin, against all odds. I also hope it will offer some useful thoughts on how to increase free immigration provision and how the immigration legal sector can use Brexit as an opportunity to create a more strategic legal sector.

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