April 1st 2013- April Fool’s day, inauspiciously- marks the first day of the new legal aid provisions introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO).
The implications of the Act for ASIRT’s clients, people subject to immigration control, will be catastrophic. 96% of all immigration work goes out of the scope of legal aid. The 4% of work which remains within the scope of legal aid- essentially asylum representation and assistance for some victims of domestic violence – is unlikely to be sufficient to sustain the existence of legal aid funded immigration law practices. Many other practitioners are therefore likely to go the way of Refugee and Migrant Justice, the Immigration Advice Service and Blakemores. Monday April 1st arguably therefore marks the end of publicly funded immigration legal representation.
On the very same day, the Home Secretary Theresa May has announced, with 2 working days’ notice, that the UK Border Agency is to be abolished and replaced with 2 as yet unnamed agencies, one apprently focusing on the visa system and one on immigration law enforcement- sounding suspiciously like the creation of a two-tier system, one to service the needs of the “good” migrant, the other policing the “illegals”. In justifying the UKBA’s abolition, Ms May described the Agency as “closed, secretive and defensive”, which is undoubtedly true- and precisely why those attempting to negotiate the UK’s immigration system have needed the competent, committed and decently resourced advocacy support about to be abolished by LASPO. While the UKBA’s abolition might give some cause for hope for improvement, it should be noted that the reforms are being rushed through under the supervision of someone who has made little secret of her antipathy towards the idea of human rights legislation, and in a political environment in which the UK Government’s attitudes towards migrants has been described as “shameful”. [www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2013/mar/29/eu-watchdog-britain-shameful-rhetoric-migrants ]
The new legal aid regime introduced by LASPO also abolishes access to legal aid funded representation for people struggling to access welfare benefit payments. This, again, is occurring on the very same day that the UK’s welfare benefits system begins to be subjected to a process of dramatic overhaul, with existing benefit payments being transferred to the new “Universal Credit” system. The process, as such processes always are, is likely to be chaotic, with claimants plagued by instances of maladministration and error.
While people subject to immigration control are, of course, largely without recourse to public funds and consequently to welfare benefits, people who have successfully navigated the immigration system to be granted leave to remain in the UK may well be. Already, agencies such as ASIRT are well used to dealing with families in such circumstances experiencing destitution as a consequence of the unlawful withholding of welfare payments. The consequences of such error are, on occasion, nothing other than tragic. [ www.birminghamlawcentre.org.uk/wordpress/?p=39 ]
And again, as of April 1st, there will be no publicly funded legal challenge available to avert such conbsequences.
This week alone, ASIRT has been working with the Nigerian single mother of an 18 month child. “Paulette” had come the UK on a visa in 2008, fleeing an abusive marriage in her country of origin. She has since survived either on the goodwill of acquaintances, or by becoming involved in yet more abusive situations. Her relationship with the father of her child collapsed soon after the child’s birth, and at the time of her referral to us the family were literally destitute, living in a friend’s abandoned flat, without gas or electricity during a week in which temperatures have seldom risen above zero. We have assisted Paulette with the submssion of representations to the UK Border Agency, and with a referral to the Local Authority for support under section 17 of the Children Act.
While her battle is by no means won, Paulette has expressed her relief and gratitude for our help, telling us that we have given her hope for the future, for the first time in years. She might previously have been able to access legal aid funded immigration support to help make representations to the UK Border Agency. From April 1st, she will not be. Without the existence of not-for-profit OISC regulated agencies like ASIRT, there will be literally nothing available to people like Paulette and her young son, unless they is able to raise the money for private representation- which is normally only possible by illegal and/or dangerous means.
ASIRT’s work, then, needs to continue, now more than ever. But fundraising in the present economic climate is ever more difficult. While we have funding bids in the pipeline, our future is by no means secure. So, to mark the death by a thousand cuts to which our service users are due to be subjected on April 1st, we have set up a Spring Fighting Fund to help keep our work afloat, and to keep providing hope to people like Paulette, for whom that is an ever scarced commodity. If you are able to help contribute in any way at all, please do.