Important new report authored by Jo Wilding for the Justice Together Initiative examines legal advice capacity in the capital
Recruitment and retention crisis contributes to overwhelming gap between supply and demand for immigration legal advice in London
22 June 2021
An important new report published yesterday by the Justice Together Initiative has found that the demand for immigration legal advice in London vastly exceeds supply. In addition, there is a recruitment and retention crisis in the immigration legal sector, and action needs to be taken urgently to repopulate the profession.
The 100-page report, A Huge Gulf: Demand and Supply for Immigration Legal Advice in London, can be downloaded here. The report was authored by Jo Wilding (of Garden Court Chambers and the University of Brighton), Maureen Mguni and Travis Van Isacker. Funding for the report was provided by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, the Justice Together Initiative and the Greater London Authority (GLA).
The report's executive summary explains: "This research project was commissioned to provide evidence about the scale and characteristics of demand for and supply of immigration legal advice in London. We were asked to examine the different types of providers, their capacity, their distribution across the city, funding models and approaches, and the entry points and referral routes through advice networks in London. We were asked to develop an estimate of the scale of different types of demand, both met and unmet, and of the gaps in provision. We were asked to explore the experiences of people who have sought or received immigration advice in London. Finally, we were asked to comment on the impact of Covid on need and provision in the capital."
Despite London having more legal aid and OISC-accredited provider organisations than any other part of the country, the authors find that there is clearly insufficient supply for matters within the scope of legal aid and there is a very large gap between capacity and need for matters outside its scope.
The report states: "The overall impression from all the data is that the right kinds of advice exist within London, and to a much greater extent than elsewhere in England and Wales, but that there is 'an overwhelming gap' between need and capacity or supply. Certain types of case experience a greater capacity gap than others, including fresh asylum claims, refugee family reunion, Article 8 cases and deportation. Equally, certain groups of people face greater barriers in accessing the advice that is available, including due to trust, language, literacy, digital literacy, and physical or geographical accessibility of services issues. It is a consistent theme that accessibility needs strategic attention as much as demand and supply: it is necessary to increase supply but, at the same time, to take a proactive approach to widening accessibility of advice."
Another significant finding of the report is that the immigration legal profession is seeing a staffing crisis, which appears to be country-wide and at all levels, from solicitors and supervising caseworkers to OISC Level 2 and above.
"This had already been identified in areas of advice desert, but it was a surprise to learn the extent of it in London," the authors commented.
A majority of firms surveyed for the report who had tried to recruit at OISC Level 2 or above (apart from the private-only firms) said they found it difficult to recruit qualified staff. One legal aid provider said their firm was "haemorrhaging staff " it could not replace.
The report concludes that the staffing crisis amounts to a serious threat to the sector.
Importantly, the report makes the point that the recruitment and training crisis arose after the closure of Refugee and Migrant Justice (formerly the Refugee Legal Centre or RLC) and the Immigration Advisory Service (IAS). Both had training programmes that amounted to a sector-wide service, and both acted as an incubator for talent and trainers in the sector. In the wake of their closure, the report observes that "there are no incubators anymore".
Amongst the report's recommendations is that consideration should be given to means of creating a new sector-wide training and supervision infrastructure, perhaps a College of Migration Law.
Other recommendations include increasing casework capacity and securing longer term sustainable funding for the sector.
The authors note that the lack of access to immigration legal advice in London has serious consequences.
Jo Wilding commented: "Our research reveals the huge gap between the need for immigration advice and people's access to it... That means people who are in the UK lawfully, or are entitled to a lawful immigration status, don't know what their rights are and can't access them."
Wilding added: "Several of our interviewees were street homeless, sleeping on buses, or in exploitative situations, and some had paid thousands of pounds for advice because they couldn't access legal aid. People are being forced into irregular status and into poverty by the complexity of the immigration system and the lack of access to advice and casework."
The report highlights that many people enter the immigration advice network as a result of a crisis, often around health, homelessness, violence or job loss, and making early advice more available would help lessen the complexity of such cases.
"This requires creative and collaborative models of outreach, drop in, embedding advice in other services, and community legal education which improves knowledge of when and where to seek good-quality advice and how to avoid harmful, exploitative and incorrect immigration advice," the report remarks.
Dr Debbie Weekes-Bernard, London's Deputy Mayor for Communities and Social Justice, said the report's research had exposed the huge problems in the immigration system, and it was vital that the Government reinstates immigration legal aid and provides adequate funding for free immigration advice services in London.
Despite the daunting problems identified, the report makes the positive point: "[T]his is an exciting and dynamic area to support. There is an extremely committed, creative and collaborative base of organisations and practitioners which already combine service delivery, campaigning and empowerment in ways which genuinely change people's lives. Several of our advice user interviewees described how an organisation or a caseworker had transformed their situation; one was suicidal before the intervention of the organisations which supported her, and now had secured leave to remain with her young child. Thoughtful and strategic funding of the immigration advice sector has the potential to build on that committed base, change a great many lives for the better and transform the debates around both immigration and advice."