Call for urgent action to prevent collapse of legal aid for migrants and refugees in Wales
The Bevan Foundation, Wales’s most influential think tank, has warned that legal aid for immigration and asylum in Wales is on the brink of collapse and called for urgent action.
The Foundation’s new report, Firefighting: protecting legal aid funded immigration services in Wales, follows a six-month study of immigration legal aid provision and highlights a legal sector it says is “in freefall” with a drastic drop in the numbers of new cases opened under legal aid.
The bleak picture painted by the report is of many people seeking asylum and other at-risk migrants being unable to access justice.
The think tank says the collapse in legal aid is leaving people unable to exercise their legal rights, breaching their human rights and leaving people who have a legal basis to remain in the UK at risk of destitution or deportation.
In the last five years, Wales has lost nearly half of its premises providing immigration legal services and even more are at risk of closure.
Earlier this year, an immigration legal aid firm which was responsible for nearly half (47%) of all immigration legal aid cases opened in Cardiff and nearly a quarter of those opened in Wales, was forced to close its offices. They have been unable to refer their caseload to other providers.
The collapse of the immigration legal aid sector is also having a major impact on other providers of legal services. Many are not accepting new referrals while organisations report being unable to refer vulnerable clients to legal help.
The Bevan Foundation’s Access to Justice Project Lead, Isata Kanneh, has called for urgent action to safeguard remaining immigration legal aid services and to protect vulnerable migrants and asylum-seekers in Wales.
She said: “Because the UK Government is responsible for legal aid, it is easy to shrug our shoulders in Wales and wait for change to come from outside.
“Legal aid does need to be reformed, but there are actions we can take in Wales, now, to keep people safe, to protect legal and human rights, and to stop valuable expertise from disappearing.”
The Foundation’s Access to Justice Policy and Research Officer, Elinor Mattey, added: “The number of people who can provide access to justice for immigration and asylum is rapidly declining in Wales.
“The findings from our research show that legal aid providers are working in an unsustainable market, with a lack of capacity to meet the overwhelming demand for justice. There is no indication that this decline will slow down unless urgent action is taken. Failing this, Wales as a whole, will become an advice desert.”
The report outlines interim solutions to the immigration and asylum legal aid crisis, including crisis and capacity funds to facilitate access to justice and provide training and development support for practitioners and legal services. The report also recommends improved referral systems and legal literacy schemes, while calling for wholesale legal aid reform and an overhaul of Home Office decision-making.
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