April Fools: The Quiet Demolition of Legal Aid
By Jo Renshaw
Following the celebration of National Pro Bono Week in the UK last week, Jo Renshaw, Partner and Head of the Immigration Team at Turpin & Miller LLP, reflects on the impact of the impending cuts to legal aid in the UK and why pro bono work will not be enough to fill the gap.
On 1 April 2013, the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (‘LASPO’) will come into effect and, to all intents and purposes, the concept of equal access to justice will be dead. In an attempt to save £350 million from the legal aid budget, LASPO simply removes whole swathes of law from the scope of public funding including (in the social welfare area) advice on benefits, most debt and housing, education and employment.
Many articles could be written (and have been) written about LASPO and its impact on various areas of law. In this short article, I want to look at one of the areas which has received less attention in the media — that of immigration. While asylum work rightly remains publicly funded, all other areas of immigration law will be removed from the scope of legal aid, save for cases involving domestic violence and trafficking. In making this proposal, the Government unsurprisingly focused on those who want to ‘visit a family member … or to fulfil their desire to work or study here’ as cases which should not be funded by the taxpayer. In times of economic austerity, few would argue with that. However such clients are rarely eligible for legal aid anyway and usually have the resources and nous to be able to make applications themselves. As we go forward into the brave new world post-April 2013, these are not the clients which will keep us awake at night. It is another group entirely — a group for whom there will be no safety net, no redress and for whom the thought of taking on the Home Office themselves is pure fantasy.
These are the clients who turn up in our reception with a shopping bag full of their belongings, two young children and (at best) some indecipherable paperwork from the Home Office or from a person they met at Paddington Station who promised to ‘sort out their status’ for a small fortune. Their English is poor or non-existent. They have often emerged from an abusive relationship and may well have British children from that relationship. They have no status and no means of supporting themselves and are ‘sofa surfing’ with their children. They will come to us when their friends are at the end of their tether and have told them they can no longer stay.
These are not hopeless cases by any means, but they are legally and evidentially extremely complex. If the children are British, the mother’s case may involve rights under a new and developing area of European law. There may well also be issues under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to a family life) as well as implementation of the emerging legislative and judicial interpretation of the ‘best interests of the child’. Evidence will need to be gathered about the legal status of the children, their physical and emotional well-being, their access to the other parent, as well as the immigration backgrounds of all concerned. To win a case on Article 8 grounds is always a fight. It requires expertise and it requires time. It often necessitates several appeals in the higher courts with procedural and evidential requirements at every step.
This client group will not be able to afford to pay fees for assistance. They will either not seek assistance or they will beg, borrow, steal (or worse) in order to try and raise money to pay for help. The reputable firms will be struggling to survive the huge cuts to their immigration teams and, with the best will in the world, will not be able to take on these clients pro bono. They will have no choice but to turn these people away.
If the measure of a civilisation is how it treats its weakest members, then all those who care about access to justice should be both appalled and outraged by what will take place next April. What we can do about it is perhaps the subject of another article.
For more information visit the Law Society’s Sound Off for Justice website at http://soundoffforjustice.org.
Jo is Partner and Head of the Immigration Team at Turpin & Miller LLP.