Immigration solicitor Wesley Gryk defends his decision to withdraw from publicly funded work and advocates a more independent LSC

My colleagues and I did not take lightly our recent decision to terminate our Legal Services Commission (LSC) contract to carry out legally aided immigration work (see [2004] Gazette, 4 March, 3).

A basic premise of our practice during the nine years of its existence has been to carry out work for legally aided clients to a standard no lower than that afforded our private clients.

However, recent changes in policy by the LSC - including the imposition of unrealistic time constraints and the withdrawal of the fundamental right of an asylum seeker to have representation at interview - would in our view make this impossible.

We have been asked to be part of a system that will in many cases afford what I can only term 'fig-leaf justice' to clients whose very lives may be at risk if returned to their home countries.

This flies in the face of the LSC's obligation under section 4(1) of the Access to Justice Act 1999 to 'secure that individuals have access to services that effectively meet their needs'.

Much of the problem arises from an apparent deterioration in the independence of the LSC.

It is particularly telling that the home secretary often announces proposed changes in LSC policies and procedures when articulating plans for reducing numbers of asylum seekers.

This lack of independence seems sanctioned at the highest levels, as demonstrated by the prime minister's pronouncement that he was going to 'derail the gravy train of legal aid'.

As a solicitor working in the legal aid system for 15-plus years, I can state categorically that there is no 'gravy train'.

One example of the LSC's overly cosy relationship with Home Office policymakers is the current fast-track system of asylum appeals at the Harmondsworth Detention Centre.

In this system, shockingly, only 1-2% of asylum cases are successful, even after appeal.

A Harmondsworth client sees a solicitor on the first or second day of detention, is interviewed that day or the next, receives the almost inevitable refusal letter the following day and has an appeal scheduled within five or six days after that.

This is a timetable within which a solicitor cannot provide meaningful representation.

While, ordinarily, the LSC imposes a 50%-or-better merits test on representation at appeals under the controlled legal representation (CLR) scheme, the scheme seems to be authorised regularly in these fast-track cases, notwithstanding the appalling lack of success on appeal.

One surmises that the LSC is prepared to bend its merits test rules in these cases because it has been deemed expedient to provide representation and the 'appearance of justice' to appellants in an inherently unjust system.

Many excellent law firms have taken the decision to continue to do legally aided immigration work.

The LSC must develop a strategy to retain this pool of extraordinary expertise and to encourage committed young solicitors to set up new practices.

The early signs are not promising.

The blunt instrument of cost auditing - initially meant to weed out rogue practitioners - is being used to terrorise decent hard-working solicitors with the threat of significant cash 'claw-backs', which in some instances would cause personal bankruptcy if effectuated.

We did not want to leave the system but felt we had no choice.

Others will follow unless the LSC recovers its independence and re-asserts as its main role the provision of high quality advice and representation to the most marginalised members of society.

Wesley Gryk is the sole principal at London-based Wesley Gryk Solicitors