One of the least reported devastations caused by government legal aid cuts has been on asylum seekers. Vulnerable people seeking refuge in the UK are left destitute and homeless when they cannot access legal support needed to challenge unlawful Home Office decisions.
The alarming shortage of housing lawyers caused by cuts in legal aid, has received significant media coverage, following a Law Society campaign about 'legal aid deserts'. As has been widely reported, evidence suggests thousands of people have lost their homes unnecessarily because of lack of access to legal advice. What has received far less attention though is a similar dearth of expert help for those seeking asylum support, which is having an equally devastating impact, leaving extremely vulnerable asylum seekers destitute.
The government's asylum support scheme provides very basic accommodation and financial support for people whose asylum claims are being processed. The Home Office can take years to reach a decision on a claim, during which time asylum seekers are unable to work or claim other welfare benefits. Asylum support is their lifeline.
Free legal help is in theory available to assist with certain asylum support problems. However, in reality, there is a serious shortage of providers - not least because the work is poorly paid, making it financially unsustainable for most solicitors firms. In addition, some of the work falls within Legal Aid Agency housing law contracts, which are few and far between. My own firm, Ben Hoare Bell solicitors, is one of the few remaining firms offering this service, and we cannot keep up with demand. Our Newcastle office, receives referrals from across the North East, including Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Stockton and Durham. There is nowhere else in the North East to refer the cases we cannot take on. There are a few excellent organisations providing support to refugees and asylum seekers – the North East Refugee Service, Justice First and the Red Cross – but their service does not include legal support.
The refusal or termination of an asylum support claim by the Home Office can have drastic consequences for asylum seekers, forcing individuals and families onto the streets. When this happens, an asylum seeker has the legal right to appeal the decision, to the first-tier tribunal. Free legal assistance is, theoretically, available to appeal against a refusal or withdrawal of accommodation, but only if an asylum seeker can overcome the significant hurdle of finding a solicitor to take their case.
Legal aid is not available for representation at asylum support tribunals, which is arguably discriminatory given that British citizens threatened with the loss of their home are entitled to means-tested legal aid. Indeed the government's Equality Impact Assessment of LASPO in June 2011 acknowledged that because 90 per cent of asylum support claims include a claim for accommodation, "the large majority of these cases are closely analogous to the local authority housing cases we intend to retain within scope". The charity Asylum Support Appeals Project (ASAP) provides a vital service to try to plug this gap. ASAP's statistics for the past 10 years show that 66 per cent of cases they assisted with were successful, demonstrating the impact of legal representation. Prospects of success are further improved for those who have help to prepare the case at an early stage, particularly to identify and gather supporting evidence.
One of my clients fled to the UK from Lebanon with his wife and two children aged one and eight in December 2015. He made an application for asylum support when he claimed asylum in early January 2016. The family were still waiting for a response to their application in April 2016. During this time, they were destitute, surviving on the generosity of strangers and ad hoc support from charities such as the Red Cross; at times homeless and sleeping on the streets. Eventually they were referred to our service by the North-East Refugee Service. We brought a legal challenge over the length of the delay, which prompted the Home Office to finally rule on the family's asylum aid claim - which was refused. We then prepared an appeal to the tribunal, ASAP provided representation, and the client was granted support.
In another case, a single mother who was a victim of domestic violence and her five year-old daughter, had their asylum support terminated due to allegations of anti-social behaviour, which she denied. Again, we appealed this decision, ASAP provided representation and the support was reinstated.
Without expert legal support, these two families would have had little chance of overturning the original refusals of this vital support and it is likely they would have remained homeless for some time.
With legal support, asylum seekers also have an opportunity to challenge unlawful decisions by the Home Office via judicial review. My firm issued proceedings against the Home Office after it separated a father from his children, accommodating them at the opposite end of the country, and, in another case, when they sought to provide unsuitable housing to an asylum seeker with significant disabilities. We routinely challenge lengthy Home Office delays in responding to asylum support applications. My experience is that the decisions of the Home Office are too often unlawful. Over the course of a year when I was working intensely on these cases, every one of them was successful, highlighting how vital it is that asylum seekers are able to access legal advice.
But with so few lawyers doing this work, what happens to the vulnerable and desperate people in this situation whom we are not able to help? They cannot turn to homelessness services and they cannot claim welfare benefits. These are people who have fled persecution, only to be left with their survival at risk when they arrive in the UK, for want of access to a legal aid lawyer who can help them.