On 1 April 2013, new legal aid changes were introduced through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). The act has significantly reduced the scope of legal aid available in civil cases.
Legal aid in immigration and asylum cases was reduced to a few specific areas of immigration law namely:
1) Asylum applications and appeals;
2) Certain asylum support issues;
3) Advice and representation for challenges to immigration detention (e.g. bail applications);
4) Advice and representation in certain domestic violence related cases where the immigration status of a migrant victim of domestic violence is dependent on his or her partner, and that partner is either a British citizen, settled person (i.e. has indefinite leave) or has terminated their partnership with from someone exercising European free movement rights;.
5) Judicial review applications;
6) Advice and representation for proceedings before the Special Immigration Appeals Commission which deals with deportation, exclusion and deprivation of citizenship cases where information is to be kept confidential for reasons of national security;
7) Advice and representation if you are an identified victim of trafficking.
British Quakers formally declared their opposition to unfair Government cuts in 2011 because of their impact on the poorest in society, especially those unable to work. The impact of cuts to legal aid has hit many such people, particularly migrants on low incomes or unable to work who can no longer pay for representation to help with the most important issues in their lives, like fighting their removal from the UK, or being united with their family members overseas.
On 8 April 2013 the Government announced a further round of cuts to legal aid in the Transforming Legal Aid consultation. One of the main proposals in the consultation is to introduce a ‘residence test’ for all civil legal aid. This would mean that to qualify for legal aid people will have to prove that they live lawfully in the UK and that they have done so for at least a year.
This is subject to a few limited exceptions, for example those seeking asylum will not be subject to the residence test and would be eligible for legal aid whilst their asylum claim was ongoing. But there are still many people who will fall through the gaps. The impact of this proposal will have a damning effect on some of the most vulnerable people in the UK. For example a disabled adult with no leave to remain who is refused support by their local authority will not be able to access legal aid to ensure they are adequately supported in line with the law; a refused asylum seeker will not be able to get advice about accommodation so they are not homeless; victims of trafficking who are not properly recognised as such will not be able to access legal aid to ensure they can challenge the decision to get the help they need and deserve.
The residence test not only discriminates against migrants, but will also prevent many British people who cannot prove their eligibility from receiving legal aid. In practise this will mean that the government can treat those who don’t meet the residence test unfairly and unlawfully without being held to account. The recent discovery of sexual abuse of detainees by staff at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre highlights how important it is that the state is challenged when those in its care are subject to abuse. To find out more information about the residence test follow this link to a briefing by the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association.
The right of individuals to stand up against the state is also under threat because the Government has now made it harder to get legal aid for judicial review cases, which challenge unlawful action by public bodies.
To read further about the new rules and why we should be worried about them click here. You can also watch this new film by the Justice Alliance, a coalition of more than 120 charities, organisations, community groups and experts. It features the experience of people who have used judicial review to access justice.
The proposed residence test is due to come into force in August 2014 and the Government changes to legal aid for judicial review are now in force. If you wish to take action in order to prevent the government’s proposals from being introduced please sign the new petition against legal aid cuts: www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/david-cameron-uk-government-save-legal-aid-to-protect-access-to-justice-for-all
You can also write to your MP to tell them you are concerned. You can find their details here. Please ask your MP to vote against the new rules for legal aid in judicial review cases in any future debate, and show their support now by signing an Early Day Motion that has been launched by Ed Miliband.
Or further still, why not join your favourite celebrities including Joanna Lumley, Stephen Fry, Tamsin Greig and Jo Brand by taking part in the Justice Alliance’s “Jelfie” campaign. Simply take a picture of yourself holding the “I AM FOR JUSTICE” poster and then either TWEET the picture using hashtag #IAMFORJUSTICE ;or post the picture on Justice Alliance Facebook page – www.facebook.com/JusticeAllianceUK; or email the picture to firstname.lastname@example.org for it to be posted on twitter and facebook.
Many thanks to Katie Tiley of Young Legal Aid Lawyers for this article