Melissa Darnbrough, 28, is a Justice First Fellow and trainee solicitor at Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit (GMIAU). She deals with asylum, domestic violence, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, trafficking and human rights applications, and qualifies on 15 December 2016. See other Justice First Fellows in the series here.
I became passionate about immigration and asylum work while completing the immigration elective on the Legal Practice Course. Unfortunately, funding cuts made it difficult to find work in immigration or social welfare law.
The Justice First Fellowship scheme, which recognised the need to secure future lawyers in this area, provided an amazing opportunity. I was also interested in the opportunity to set up my own project, to help people overcome injustices and get access to the help they need.
I am working with my GMIAU colleague, Nadia Hussain, who is also a Fellow, to establish an immigration legal advice service for foreign nationals held in immigration detention in prison. These are people who have been affected by the loss of legal aid as a result of LASPO and, in our experience, because of the nature of their criminal convictions are likely to have been trafficked, and may have valid asylum claims. We are investigating whether people are being denied access to legal advice, and being held in prison when they shouldn’t be or for unduly long periods. We are also looking at how access to legal advice can help them and reduce the costs to the prison service.
We have seen many clients in prison and gathered data demonstrating a great need for an immigration advice service. The service will help those detained to understand their rights, access immigration advice and give them the opportunity to present their claims for protection and bail.
We hope our work will lead to improvements in the treatment of people held in prison.
The JFF programme has been particularly helpful in providing tips on grant funding applications — something that I had no prior experience of. At the JFF conference we had the chance to pitch our project to a funder, who gave us useful feedback.
The worst thing about being a legal aid lawyer is that while there are more and more funding cuts, the workload stays the same or increases.
The best thing about the work is being able to assist people who cannot afford a private solicitor, and help them access justice they deserve. Without legal aid these people would have to represent themselves.
Immigration and asylum is a complex area of law that even the most seasoned practitioners find difficult to navigate. The potential injustice is huge and will often be a matter of life and death.
It is a great feeling to know that being a legal aid lawyer is making a massive difference to people’s lives.
One client who sticks in my mind was a woman who had been subjected to severe emotional and psychological abuse at the hands of her husband. In order to assist victims you must be able to provide evidence that the relationship has broken down as a result of domestic violence. But with emotional abuse, there is little by way of physical evidence to present. Despite this we were able to piece together other bits of evidence and build a successful case for her. This was a beacon of hope to the client, who had been through so much, and it would not have been possible without legal aid.
A lawyer I really admire is Colin Yeo, an immigration barrister at Garden Court North who founded the Free Movement website. He is passionate about immigration, asylum and human rights, and his insights into the changes in the law are invaluable.
Access to justice matters because it is a basic human right. In austerity Britain those who suffer the greatest injustice can least afford to enforce their rights. The term ‘justice’ is meaningless without the means to access it.
Three qualities a good legal aid lawyer should have are patience, resilience and determination.
I would advise anyone looking to become a legal aid lawyer to be prepared for a tough ride. The work however, is very rewarding and worth it when you see the difference you are making to people.