Legal aid reforms have not adversely affected immigration appeals, according to latest government research, despite reporting that lawyers are doing more pro bono work.
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which came into force in April 2013, removed the majority of immigration matters from the scope of legal aid funding.
The ministry’s report, Monitoring the early impacts of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (2012) on onward immigration appeals, said ’there is little evidence that LASPO has adversely affected cases entering or progressing through to the onward immigration appeals process’ but noted ’a longer time is needed to observe the full LASPO effects’.
The majority of respondents, which included law firms, advice organisations and judges, believed there had been an increase in the amount of pro bono or reduced rate work undertaken by firms and organisations post-LASPO, but said these ‘were not sustainable’.
Pro bono efforts included helping people with their grounds of appeal (but not representing them at the tribunal) or exceptional case funding applications.
Some were concerned an increasing number of people would turn to unregulated providers as a result of the cuts.
One respondent said removing legal aid would ‘leave people who don’t have very much money because otherwise they wouldn’t have gone for legal aid at all, but are desperate for advice, and therefore you make a bigger market for people who are willing to charge lots of money or an amount of money but do nothing for it’.
Another provider had done ‘a lot of fixing work’ post-LASPO for cases that had been through the First-Tier Tribunal and had been ‘damaged through poor legal assistance’.
However, some suggested the removal of immigration from the scope of legal aid would encourage a higher quality of legal provision ‘as more clients become self-funded…the legal market would have to react by providing more affordable, quality advice’.
Lawyers and advice organisations also reported a need to adapt their business models post-LASPO.
Not-for-profit organisations and law centres, for instance, were establishing a separate charging arm to provide advice to self-funded clients.
One advice organisation said it had received an increasing number of enquiries through its free telephone advice helpline and more people were attending its reduced fee drop-in clinic for advice on application documents.
One lawyer said their firm had to be more selective in choosing which immigration cases to take on due to funding restrictions while another said their firm was taking on more private work ‘in order to remain operational as a department’ because they previously specialised in immigration work that was no longer in scope for funding.
Though the ministry’s research suggested the LASPO reforms had not led to an increase in unrepresented appellants at tribunals, some judges believed unrepresented appellants, without the benefit of legal advice, ‘may fail to progress their appeal simply by not being aware of the evidence required’.
Some members of the judiciary also said they had to spend more time questioning appellants ‘to help tease out the facts of the case to help judges make what they feel is a fair decision’.