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Major new report by Jo Wilding details the serious shortage of legal aid providers for immigration and asylum cases across the UK


259-page report commissioned by Refugee Action comprehensively documents all aspects of asylum legal advice desert

Date of Publication:
26 May 2022

Refugee Action today released a major new report which details the serious lack in the availability of legal aid providers for immigration and asylum cases across the UK.

Report coverThe 259-page report, No access to justice: how legal advice deserts fail refugees, migrants and our communities, can be downloaded here. It was authored by Dr Jo Wilding of Garden Court Chambers and Brighton University.

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."

The report comprehensively documents how the supply of immigration and asylum legal aid in the UK is unable to meet the demand.

Wilding explained: "The overarching conclusion is that there is not enough immigration and asylum legal advice available, country-wide, and this leaves people at risk of forced return to a country where they face serious harm, of exploitation of the kinds referred to in the Modern Slavery Act, of remaining in a violent or abusive relationship, or of extreme poverty and deprivation of access to essential services because they cannot regularise or prove their immigration status. The complexity of immigration and asylum law mean that few people can manage to make their applications without legal assistance, and the lack of advice and casework capacity means that some are simply excluded from the applications system. The system itself – the high fees, the number of applications required to obtain settlement, the nature of decision-making – drives up demand for immigration advice to a level which cannot be met by any reasonably practicable amount of capacity building within the advice sector alone."

For the report, Wilding measured the deficit in legal aid provision by comparing supply against demand (in the primary categories eligible for legal aid) for all regions and countries of UK. Supply was measured by the average number of legal aid cases started each year over the past three years. Figures are comprehensively broken down for each region in the report.

The report's calculations reveal that all regions of England and Wales except London had a legal aid deficit.

While London was the only region with a legal aid surplus, the report notes this was a very narrow surplus and was due to the fact that provision in London is taken up by inward demand pressure from other regions.

Scotland was found to have good provision for asylum and immigration legal aid, but it was heavily concentrated in Glasgow and not available anywhere outside of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Northern Ireland (NI) had a severe legal aid shortage, with just 9 to 12 providers in total.

The report also details how firms are having severe problems recruiting solicitors and caseworkers for legal aid asylum cases. In the East of England, for example, the report notes: "Recruitment is described as 'a nightmare' and 'virtually impossible' at all OISC levels and for legal aid in most of the ... region. Even in Luton, which is the main town for provision in the region, the Law Centre had its contract suspended for a year because it was unable to recruit a supervising solicitor to replace one who retired and another who went on maternity leave."

In many parts of England and Wales, legal aid provision depends heavily on one individual or a small number of people. Examples include Plymouth and Stoke-on-Trent where there is only one qualified legal aid caseworker in an asylum dispersal city, and the entire surrounding county.

Jo Wilding said: "The recruitment crisis in the immigration advice sector is the single biggest obstacle to increasing capacity in England, Wales and NI. Strategic action is needed to re-grow the sector, both through the structuring of grants to organisations and a wider infrastructural focus on training and supervision. This needs to replace the loss of major provider organisations which used to train large numbers of caseworkers, and to remove the cost of training from individual organisations."

The report is hugely comprehensive and impossible to sum up in a short article here. It is essential reading for any legal practitioner working in the field of asylum.

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."