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Refugees at serious risk of forced return, deportation to Rwanda as mapping project reveals massive shortfall in legal advice

A groundbreaking report that maps legal aid provision for people seeking asylum across the UK has found that every region except London has a huge shortfall in access to free advice.

The report – No access to justice: how legal advice deserts fail refugees, migrants and our communities – found that many areas in the UK have no legal aid provision for people seeking asylum.

Some cities to which people seeking asylum are “dispersed” – including Plymouth, Stoke and Hull – have as few as one legal aid caseworker. A retirement or resignation could leave the city without a legal aid professional.

Swindon, another dispersal centre, has a provider with a legal aid contract, but cannot recruit a caseworker at all, meaning there is no provision in reality.

The shortfall has raised serious concerns about the ability of people seeking asylum to access legal advice before their claims are assessed by the Home Office, including those in detention who have received notice they could be deported to Rwanda.

Refugee Action, which commissioned legal aid expert Dr Jo Wilding to research and write the report, said the huge deficit leaves people with meritorious claims for asylum at high risk of forced return or deportation to Rwanda.

The report also raises huge concerns about Government plans for “mandatory dispersal” of asylum seekers and the development of isolated “reception centres” such as the one earmarked for Linton on Ouse in North Yorkshire, policies announced by the Home Secretary alongside her Rwanda deal in April.

Local authority areas such as Cumbria, North Cheshire, Durham, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Surrey, West Sussex, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, and Lincolnshire among others have no provision at all, while there is a near total lack of legal aid professionals along the south coast, the report highlights.

Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are already being sent to local authorities in areas where there are no legal aid solicitors.

The report also reveals there is no provision in North Yorkshire, where the reception centre in Linton on Ouse is being developed to accommodate people seeking asylum.

People in detention centres who are being considered for deportation to Rwanda also have little access to a legal aid solicitor.

The report measured deficit by comparing demand for legal aid in the primary categories which are eligible against supply in all 10 regions or nations of the UK: Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, North West England, North East England, Yorkshire and the Humber, Eastern England, South West England, South East England (outside London) and the English Midlands.

Demand was calculated by adding up the number of people with an initial claim for asylum, the number of people who have asylum and are applying for settlement, the number of people referred to the National Referral Mechanism, and the number of people applying for indefinite leave to remain under domestic violence provisions.

Supply was measured by the average number of legal aid cases started each year over the past three years. The calculations found that:

  • The North West had 34 legal aid providers and a legal aid deficit of 6,470;
  • The North East had 12 legal aid providers and a deficit of 3,365;
  • Yorkshire and the Humber had 23 legal aid providers and a deficit of 4,329;
  • The Midlands had 44 legal aid providers and a deficit of 3,903;
  • Wales had 12 legal aid providers and a deficit of 2,266;
  • The South West has 11 legal aid providers and a deficit of 1,165;
  • The South East had 15 legal aid providers and a deficit of 988;
  • The East of England had 12 legal aid providers and a deficit of 1,001.

Provision in Scotland and Northern Ireland is administered differently, where this is a much wider scope for immigration legal aid

However, the report shows a severe shortage of access in Northern Ireland, with only nine to 12 providers for the entire area. Scotland has good provision for asylum legal aid, but very limited provision for other types of immigration case, and almost no provision outside Glasgow.

The report found the lack of provision – as well as payment structures for legal aid cases – had a knock-on effect whereby legal aid firms could only afford to pick up more straightforward asylum cases, cases with a deadline, or cases that paid by the hour rather than by the job.

The deficit in legal aid provision means that people are either waiting much longer to get advice on their asylum claim – or they are going to their Home Office asylum interview or filling out pre-interview questionnaires without having legal advice, putting them at serious disadvantage.

The lack of access to justice is also concerning due to the growing number of people waiting for a decision on an initial asylum claim (which increased from 65,000 at the end 2020 to 100,500 at the end of 2021), and the high number of incorrect decisions. Almost 50 per cent of appeals against negative asylum decisions successful in 2021).

Compounding the deficit is the problems firms are having recruiting solicitors and accredited caseworkers for legal aid asylum cases, with those in many areas describing it as “impossible” or “almost impossible”, the report reveals.

The report sets out a number of recommendations the Government could follow to reduce advice deficits, including:

  • Shortening the backlog in asylum claims by triaging and granting asylum quickly to applicants from countries with high grant rates, such as Syria and Afghanistan.
  • Reducing the number of applications needed for settlement in cases where the grant of leave is based on long residence or close family ties. For example, replace the five applications and 10-year route to settlement with one application for five years’ leave to remain, and then an application for settlement.
  • Abandoning the hostile environment policies, which drive up demand with little or no identified public benefit.

The research is based on interviews, group discussions, surveys, published statistics and Freedom of Information requests over a 14-month period.

Report author Dr Jo Wilding said:

“This is the first piece of research that looks at access to immigration and asylum legal advice across the whole UK, and it shows there’s a deficit in every region of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and a deficit across the country as a whole.

“It means that people are missing out on refugee status or immigration status that they’re entitled to, and driving poverty and destitution in the UK as a result.

Tim Naor Hilton, Chief Executive of Refugee Action, said:

“It’s hugely concerning that accessing justice is so difficult at a time when the Government is tearing up its legal obligations to refugees.

“People who do not get advice are put at a huge disadvantage when their claim for asylum is being assessed.

“Too many errors are already made on asylum decisions. With refugees being sent to remote accommodation centres, 5000 miles away to Rwanda, or home to face violence and persecution, it’s vital they can get legal advice.”

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