The application for legal aid by 'ISIS bride' Shamima Begum has catapulted the topic of legal aid to the top of national news coverage. While the Legal Aid Agency has yet to formally approve her application, it is being widely assumed she will be successful.
The case will come before the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (Siac), which adjudicates on cases where the home secretary has stripped someone of their nationality on grounds of national security.
The story has prompted wall-to-wall coverage and analysis, despite a lack of any public decision from the LAA, or any statement from Begum or her lawyers. It has been widely reported that solicitor Gareth Peirce, who made her name representing the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four, will represent Begum.
Times columnist Melanie Phillips today argues that Begum’s case must be tested in court, and funded through legal aid. ‘We must all just stifle our distaste and suck it up,’ she concludes.
The Mail’s Richard Littlejohn claims that the case had shone a light on how the system can be ‘milked by unscrupulous lawyers’ (he notes Peirce is not included in this category). ‘There are endless examples of law firms getting fat on the taxpayer teat, pursuing the most undeserving case,’ adds Littlejohn.
Politicians have been approached for their opinion on whether Begum should receive state assistance. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told the BBC the 19-year-old ‘has legal rights just like anybody else does’.
‘Every person in front of a court – whatever they are accused of doing, however heinous or bad the crime is – is entitled to that representation,’ he said.
Lord Chancellor David Gauke has yet to make any public statement on the matter. His cabinet colleague Jeremy Hunt admitted yesterday he was ‘uncomfortable’ with Begum receiving legal aid, but added: ‘We are a country that believes that people with limited means should have access to the resources of the state if they want to challenge the decisions the state has made about them’.
The Legal Aid Agency said it does not comment on individual cases, but said anybody applying for legal aid in a Special Immigration Appeal Commission is subject to ‘strict eligibility tests’. Applicants must meet means and merits tests when applying for legal aid in these cases.