Plans to align legal aid fees for immigration and asylum work with reforms being carried out by HM Courts & Tribunals Service have prompted more than 200 worried practitioners to write to the Legal Aid Agency.
To support legal aid providers during the coronavirus outbreak, the Ministry of Justice announced last month that it would align legal aid fees for first-tier tribunal immigration and asylum appeals with HMCTS’s move to an online system for these cases.
HMCTS began piloting a digital service last year designed to improve case management and reduce the number of hearings. Directions in response to the pandemic have also been issued by judges that reflect or refer to the reform pilot.
However, 217 members of a group called the UK Immigration Advisors Working Group have told the LAA that the pilot, in its current form, risks driving many firms out of business. They say the scheme has ‘fundamentally changed the manner in which appeals must now be prepared to a "frontloaded" model, with no funding under the current legal aid funding regime’. The letter explains the maximum a firm can expect to recoup at each stage of an appeal. The group says practitioners can lose £642 per case in cases where the Home Office ends up withdrawing its decision or granting immigration status before the matter reached the tribunal.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson told the Gazette: ‘We appreciate the challenges legal professionals face and continue to work with those who rely on legal aid for their income, to identify ways we can support them and keep the justice system running. We have also already announced that we will align legal aid fees for first-tier tribunal immigration and asylum appeals with HMCTS’ move to an online system for these cases.’
The Legal Aid Agency will publish an update ‘in due course’.
The Law Society said it supported the concerns raised by the group which have been ‘core focuses’ for Chancery Lane during engagement with the government and judiciary. As a result, many of the issues raised, such as a practice statement and funding, are being reviewed.
Simon Davis, president, said: ‘As the court reform programme will fundamentally transform the role of a solicitor in any type of litigation, the Society has been engaging extensively with HMCTS to ensure that our members are properly accounted for in this transition. The immigration law committee, which comprises highly experienced practitioners in legal aid and privately funded work, has been integral to informing this feedback relating to the immigration and asylum reform project on behalf of our members.’
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.