Legal aid cuts in immigration cases have created a climate of confusion and mistrust in detention centres, according to a pressure group's research.
Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group examined the impact of legal aid cuts on people detained in Brook House and Tinsley House immigration removal centres in Gatwick after noting ‘there is currently little research as to the impacts of [the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012], both generally and specifically, for people in immigration detention’.
LASPO, which came into effect in April 2013, removed legal aid from the scope of all immigration work apart from asylum, with a small number of exceptions.
According to the report, people out of scope for legal aid whom the charity spoke to said they did not receive clear advice from statutory legal surgeries in detention centres about what their options were. They reported ‘varying levels’ of advice and information as to whether the legal representative could take on their case and what their options were if their case was out of the scope for legal aid.
There was also ‘widespread confusion’ over the fact that although immigration work is excluded from legal aid, matters relating to detention, such as temporary admission and bail, are still included.
Detainees indicated ‘high levels of distrust and lack of confidence’ in legal aid solicitors, which the charity said was ’unsurprising’.
The report states: ‘People with cases out of scope for legal aid are likely to be told that legal aid solicitors cannot assist them, or that they will need to pay privately despite legal aid solicitors supposedly being ”free”. This fuels the perception that legal aid solicitors are working within the government/home office and are not able or do not want to assist people in detention.’
The charity said legal advisers rarely applied for exceptional case funding and this was 'even more rarely granted'. None of the legal advisers interviewed who attended legal surgeries at detention centres said they applied for exceptional funding on a regular basis.
Section 10 of LASPO allows ‘exceptional cases’ to be funded where failure to do so would breach the individual’s human rights.
The charity said the result was ‘not surprising’ as applications ’are complex and time-consuming, and representatives are only paid if applications are successful’.
The report recommends that legal representatives be paid to make exceptional case funding applications.
It says legal advisers should provide ‘clear, written advice’ for people out of scope for legal aid, ‘advising that case is out of scope for legal aid and outlining the client’s options, with a quote where possible for the cost of private work’.
The Ministry of Justice said the LASPO reforms were designed to make the system more affordable and target legal aid at those who most need a lawyer.
A spokesperson said: ‘Legal aid remains available in immigration matters concerning asylum, detention and for victims of trafficking victims, as well as for judicial review.
‘Exceptional case funding can be awarded for other immigration cases, but only where there is a legal obligation for us to provide support.’