Members of ASIRT’s team were both proud and depressed today to participate in an event commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Hope Projects [ www.hope-projects.org.uk/ ], an organisation providing housing and subsistence support, amongst other things, to destitute asylum seekers in the West Midlands: proud to work alongside people with such commitment to social justice, equality and compassion, but depressed to reflect that, after 10 years of hard work, the need for such work has never been greater. Destitution has become firmly institutionalised within the asylum system, used as the perpetual stick with which the UK Border Agency strives to beat “failed” asylum seekers out of the UK.
Around 70% of the people with whom ASIRT works are destitute at the point of their first contact with us. And the majority of these are people who have been failed by the asylum system. Informal research we have carried out indicates that, as things stand, more than half of asylum cases heard at Birmingham’s Asylum and Immigration Tribunal are heard without any form of legal representation. This ties in with research carried out in 2007 by the Devon Law Centre [ www.irr.org.uk/news/asylum-seekers-wrongly-refused-legal-aid/ ], which found that legal aid was wrongly refused at appeal to asylum seekers in a shocking 84% of cases. And since that research was carried out six years ago, the situation in terms of legal representation for asylum seekers has gone from bad to worse.
Refugee and Migrant Justice, a specialist charity providing legal aid funded representation to asylum seekers, went into administration in 2010; the Immigration Advisory Service followed suit a year later. Both organisations cited changes to the Government’s administration of legal aid as directly responsible for their financial inviability. Thousands of vulnerable people, fleeing persecution and dependent on their legal representatives to help them to access justice, found themselves overnight without a solicitor. In the West Midlands, many of these people eventually transferred their files- once they had been recovered from the Legal Service Commission’s administrators- to Blakemores Solicitors, one of the ever-dwindling number of legal-aid funded immigration practitioners in the region.
And in a horrific replay of the events of 2010 and 2011, Blakemores was closed down by the Solicitors Regulation Authority yesterday (March 11th, 2013), leaving many people’s cases once again unrepresented, with potentially life-threatening consequences. [www.lawgazette.co.uk/news/lawyers2you-latest-victim-pi-bloodbath ] ASIRT is working with local partners, including the Hope Projects, to help locate files and to ensure that the impact of Blakemores’ closure is, as far as possible, minimised.
Yet there is no question that the outlook is bleak. There is already a dearth of competent publicly funded legal representation in the West Midlands, and it remains to be seen where Blakemores’ clients’ files might usefully be transferred once they are acquired from the SRA. And yet more legal aid cuts are due to come in force on April 1st, taking 96% of all immigration work out of the scope of legal aid, seriously jeopardising the financial viability of many LSC funded immigration practitioners.[frontlinehackney.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/social-benefit.html ] Birmingham Law Centre narrowly avoided going the way of RMJ, Blakemores and the IAS just a matter of weeks ago.
All of this is occurring against a background of “austerity”, in which the dismal economic outlook leads to ever more vicious attacks on those identified as scapaegoats. Scarcely a day goes by without a tabloid attack on those people accused of coming to the UK purely to take advantage of our allegedly over-generous benefits and health systems, with public attitudes that “we should look after our own first” becoming ever more entrenched, and the very concept of “human rights” becoming redefined as essentially alien, problematic and contrary to the rule of law.
There is, in other words, little doubt that the work of agencies like BLC, Hope and ASIRT will still be needed in 2023. What is less certain, however, is that we will actually still be here without public help and support.
If you are able to help with our work in any way, please get in touch.