Asylum work after the Legal Aid Bill
Guest post, to mark World Refugee Day, from Dr Russell Hargrave, Communications & Public Affairs Officer at Asylum Aid
Life after LAPSO
In the teeth of opposition from experts and campaigners, the Legal Aid, Punishment and Sentencing of Offenders Bill (LAPSO) was rushed through parliament and obtained royal assent two months ago. It is scheduled to pass into legislation in April 2013. JCWI was among those who tracked the Bill’s progress, and the damage that this legislation may bring.
On World Refugee Day, it is worth reflecting on what this means for the people helped every day by Asylum Aid: men, women and children fleeing torture, rape and violence overseas. Legal aid remains in place for asylum cases, but the removal of immigration work from scope will also remove one plank of the funding which makes complex asylum work possible. If those who provide quality legal advice to asylum seekers are forced out of business – and we have seen the demise of the two largest providers in the last two years – then asylum seekers will be left without the specialist legal help that they desperately need.
There is, undoubtedly, a new reality here, and it is one with which we need to come to terms. In austere times, it is evidently more productive to push for better use of the funds already dedicated to asylum work, rather than lobbying for new money (something which, in all likelihood, would be fruitless anyway). Government and campaigners can agree on one key thing at least: the challenge is about how best to use the scarce funding available.
Even with this framework, though, the government currently approaches the question from entirely the wrong direction. With new asylum contracts up for negotiation with the Legal Services Commission next year, there is a small window of opportunity for convincing the government to take an alternative view.
There is another way
While the Border Agency haemorrhages public money in the latter stages of the asylum system – as a result of delays in hearing and deciding asylum applications, the still-woeful quality of many of those decisions, and ongoing attempts to remove from the UK people whose protection needs remain unresolved – too little attention is paid to the difference that the same resources could make if shifted to the beginning of the asylum process.
It is through redeploying resources to ‘frontload’ asylum work – by funding legal representatives to produce witness statements ahead of asylum interviews, for example, and by giving representatives and Border Agency officials the time, space and environment to discuss the case together before an initial decision is made – that everyone involved can benefit from a fairer, better run system.
This is as much about people as it is about process. Recent candid discussions between Asylum Aid and Border Agency officials, under the auspices of the GLA’s Right First Time project, convinced us of the merit in bringing participants together as early as possible in an asylum claim. Given freedom to discuss the asylum process away from the strain of daily workloads, feedback on all sides was positive.
And we already know the more concrete outcomes of ‘frontloading’. They were neatly listed by the independent evaluation published the first time the process was trialled for asylum claims, in Solihull in 2008. Of more than 450 ‘frontloaded’ applications (which were compared with a random sample), cases were concluded almost twice as quickly. Better, more sustainable decisions were reached, as the number of refusals overturned on appeal halved. The number of people absconding, and dropping out of view entirely, fell. “Considerable cost savings” were identified at the front end, where the lower rate of allowed appeals meant that any rise in legal aid spending was off-set by significant savings on Tribunal and support costs.
This is a platform on which a better asylum system can be based, one which might start to command the trust of everyone involved with it.
The latest, expanded ‘frontloading’ pilot – the Early Legal Advice Project – was rolled-out across the whole west midlands region eighteen months ago, from which an interim evaluation is scheduled for later this summer. The future for asylum seekers and their advocates is very uncertain – but there remains much to play for.
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