ASIRT: Demand for legal advice outweighs supply post-LASPO

new-small-logoWhat does the Asylum Support and Immigration Resource Team (ASIRT) do?
ASIRT provides free OISC-regulated immigration advice, advocacy and legal representation to asylum seekers and other undocumented migrants who would otherwise struggle to access such representation.

How many staff does ASIRT have and how many volunteers?
The project presently employs only one member of staff, the Project Manager, supported by a team of six volunteers. As well as engaging in casework, the Project Manager chairs the regional multi-agency Destitution Support group, devises and delivers packages of training in migrants’ health entitlements and works in partnership with other agencies, including law centres and barristers’ chambers, to initiate strategic litigation against unlawful Home Office practices and decisions.

What responsibilities do volunteers have at ASIRT?
ASIRT’s volunteers perform a number of roles, including helping with interpreting, facilitating service user support/self-help groups, advocating for destitute clients’ welfare support needs and providing cooked meals and food parcels for people with no other means of subsistence.

How is ASIRT funded?
80% of ASIRT’s funding comes from charitable trusts. 5% of our costs are met by a Local Authority grant. The remaining 15% comes from donations, training revenue and other professional services.

How many cases a year does ASIRT conduct?
As already noted, ASIRT does not have a legal aid contract, not least because the vast majority of difficulties with which we try to assist people involve immigration matters which are no longer within the scope of legal aid. We do, however, work on some 50 such cases each year, and could realistically deal with around the same number again if we had the capacity.

What types of cases are they?
Primarily, we work with cases relating to further asylum representations or Article 8 ECHR claims relating to children and families who are subject to immigration control. We have grave concerns relating to the Home Office’s treatment of such cases: evidence obtained from a Freedom of Information request in 2011 suggested that almost 90% of fresh asylum submissions are being refused by the Home Office without a right of appeal, leaving the mechanism of judicial review as the only means by which such decisions can be challenged.

Similarly, Article 8 applications based on children’s long residence in the UK are routinely refused in contravention of the law- again, without any right of appeal- even in those cases where children have been resident in the UK for periods in excess of seven years.  Since the advent of LASPO, legal aid is simply not available for immigration applications of this type.

What have the highlights of the last twelve months been?
Given the blasted landscape in which we are presently working, ‘highlights’ are regrettably few and far between. However, we have recently been delighted to see one of our service users granted leave to remain on humanitarian grounds after a three year battle. ‘Khadija’ is a 75 year old Somali woman, who had been sleeping on the floor of a mosque at the point of her first referral to our project, her initial asylum claim having been refused by the Home Office.

ASIRT was able to make use of pro-bono contacts, seeking the help of No 5 Chambers and Birmingham Law Centre to challenge the Home Office’s refusal to consider new evidence we had gathered and submitted on Khadija’s behalf. The decision was eventually overturned, forcing the Home Office to reconsider Khadija’s new evidence as a fresh claim for asylum – a claim which, some two years later, the Home Office once again went on to refuse.

This second refusal was appealed (and, indeed, during the appeal process Khadija’s representatives at Birmingham Law Centre went into administration, yet further complicating matters), and the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal thankfully allowed the appeal.

What impact (if any) has LASPO had on ASIRT?
The removal of 96% of immigration work from the scope of legal aid has had a severe impact on our service users’ lives. The quality of Home Office decisions has been notoriously poor for some time, yet it would appear as though that quality has deteriorated even further since the advent of LASPO, with decision-makers secure in the knowledge that their poor and frequently unlawful decisions cannot easily be challenged by people subject to immigration control because they no longer have access to legal aid lawyers.

However, whilst demand for our services and support has grown since LASPO was implemented, the austere economic climate has reduced the funding base available to us, and so our capacity to meet the demand has diminished.

What is the future for ASIRT if the government goes ahead with its planned further cuts to legal aid?
Our main concern is that, if the further cuts are implemented, we will be expected to service an ever greater number of people, who will be denied access to publicly-funded representation. Not only do we lack capacity to meet this unmet need, but the most frustrating thing is that even when we can assist service users by submitting legally informed human rights representations to the Home Office, these are more often than not refused, without any reference whatsoever to the legal arguments we have put forward. At that point, if the further cuts are implemented, our clients will no longer have access to public funding to obtain redress from these manifestly unlawful decisions by way of judicial review, so the Home Office will remain unchecked.

We are also very concerned about the proposals to introduce a ‘residence test’, by which a person applying for publicly funded legal representation must demonstrably have been continuously lawfully resident in the UK for a period of 12 months. By definition, the vast majority of our service users are not ‘lawfully resident’, since that is precisely the status they are seeking our help in acquiring. As already noted, the standard decision-making conducted by statutory bodies such as the Home Office is routinely of a low quality, and dubious legality. The proposal to restrict service users’ ability to challenge such decisions effectively removes the Home Secretary’s representatives from any notion of democratic accountability, leaving undocumented migrants without any hope of ever regularising their status, and of participation in the UK as full and active citizens.

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