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A glimpse into the realities of being an immigration lawyer: looking beyond the rhetoric of ‘do-gooder’ lawyers

A calm sea east of Hastings where small boats drift in, seeking refuge for desperate people. Photo: HCoS.

Plans for new legislation on asylum policy (see our June Newsletter) involve profound changes to immigration law; the proposed removal of the right to asylum for anyone arriving ‘irregularly’ will clog up the courts for years to come, as those who are fleeing violence and persecution, have been trafficked or tortured, or face death if sent back, try to obtain a just hearing. HCoS Campaigns team member and legal advisor Olivia Cavanagh gives a glimpse here of what things look like in the already harsh quagmire of the legal process those seeking sanctuary endure; in particular, her young clients who have made the long, torturous journey to what they hope will be safety and a chance to live in peace. (Prepublication version of article in Hastings Independent Press, July 9th 2021).

I have worked as an immigration advisor since 2008, representing adult clients and unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC), amongst the most vulnerable of all. Some UASC clients are cared for in Hastings by the local authority and Hastings is one of the very few dispersal areas in the South East for adults and families.

On starting a case, the first thing we do is take detailed statements – most often done through an interpreter – on a client’s life in their home country, their reasons for fleeing, and their journeys to the UK. Telling their stories can be difficult, but I hope it may also be cathartic: it is possibly the first time they have been able to explain their experiences to someone who is actively listening. The journey to the UK alone can be incredibly traumatic; our Darfurian unaccompanied minors typically travel for a period of around three years from Sudan to the UK, often surviving slavery and torture in Libya, dangerous journeys by sea to Malta and Italy, and again across the English Channel to the UK by small boat or dangerously concealed in a vehicle. Many have started their journeys only just into their teens, unprotected and alone in an acutely dangerous world.

There is no ‘typical’ day, but the sheer intensity of our work is relentless, with constant and unpredictable Home Office and court deadlines, overseeing the complex funding of cases, and the onerous recording of our work. We normally run cases from the time a person claims asylum, at appeal (in the event that an application is refused), and until their case concludes, often years later, with a grant of leave to remain or, fortunately much less often, with a refused case that cannot be taken further.

During this time, we can be one of the few points of contact for our clients and assist with such things as accommodation issues and medical appointments on a voluntary basis. In Hastings we are very lucky to have the Links project to support clients around their legal case during their years of waiting.

The Covid-19 pandemic added another layer of delay from the Home Office, which took an entire year to organise remote asylum interviews. We suddenly saw as many interviews being conducted in two weeks as we would normally see in a year, adding greatly to our workloads. The first lockdown also coincided with the busiest time I can remember due to the increase in small boats arriving along the south coast. Our waiting list jumped from the normal six referrals to 20. Luckily, clients adapted well to the online appointments necessitated by lockdown.

We routinely instruct medical experts in physical and psychological scarring reports, and country experts on current conditions; we apply case law and Home Office policy, which the Home Office often fails to apply. Caseloads are high; due to the constant demand and the challenge of keeping our organisation financially viable.

How we are funded is in fact central to the job and this alone can make us particularly despondent, and the reason many representatives stop practising. Over the past decade, it has become significantly harder for people needing legal representation to obtain access to justice. The 2013 cuts to free legal aid restricted help within immigration law to: children’s cases, asylum applications, some domestic violence cases, trafficking cases, challenges to immigration detention and judicial review applications. Sadly, for other categories, including family reunion for refugees, free legal help is no longer offered.

Accessing funding from the government’s Legal Aid Agency (LAA) causes undeniably the biggest stress of the job. Every phone call, whether answered or not, and email must be recorded: the LAA will not release payment until the Home Office has interviewed an applicant and acknowledged receipt of our representations in support of the application: this can be years after the case is started. We often work to a loss because the fees finally awarded are entirely insufficient to cover the real time it takes to do justice to someone’s case. There is a constant attempt from the LAA to claw money back; indeed, we live in genuine fear of the LAA and often under-record time for work done. In the last 15 years this funding regime has caused many long-existing, well-respected legal organisations to stop operating, in turn leading to a dearth of legal representatives.

The inefficiency of the Home Office, stretching cases out unnecessarily for years, and routinely refusing clearly valid cases that go on to be allowed at appeal, represents a huge waste of public funds. For our clients, living their lives on hold often causes or exacerbates mental health issues and high levels of anxiety. They cannot return to their own country for at least five years once they are granted asylum; with up to three years getting here, another two or three in the asylum process – this can mean a decade before they have any chance of seeing their family again.

Limbo: you will be erased and forgotten too. By Safwa Chowdhury.

Claiming asylum is not something anyone takes lightly. Once clients are finally granted leave to remain the most difficult time begins, as they are effectively cut loose from our service and have to navigate their way alone to find accommodation and work; our service needs to fall away in order to start on the next case…