By Maurice Wren, Director, Asylum Aid - 13th February 2013
The UK’s crumbling asylum system has needed remedial work for some time. Three reports published today suggest how to achieve this from the bottom up, starting with better legal advice.
Everyone has a stake in this. Successive governments have attempted to put bad headlines about asylum behind them, only to be derailed by the next tranche of stories. Public support for individual refugees is robust, but no one has time for an asylum system in perpetual chaos (something acknowledged by Yvette Cooper on PoliticsHome in December). Civil servants tire of working with some extremely poor solicitors. Good lawyers tire of officials who routinely disbelieve clients regardless of the evidence put before them. We can’t go on like this.
Caught in the middle are many people in demonstrable need of refuge and sanctuary. Yet the system is in such a shambles that Asylum Aid regularly happens upon people who, not least because of a shortage of decent legal advice, have never had the evidence of their asylum claim considered in full by an official or judge.
It’s a mess. Asylum work needs an injection of innovative thinking, and right now it is charities rather than government who are making all the running.
Each of today’s reports looks from a different angle at what happens when asylum seekers have access to better legal advice. Justice at Risk, published by the Runnymede Trust, looks at the erosion of quality advice on asylum through a legal aid system which absurdly incentivises slapdash representation (essentially, eight hours work pays the same as a single hour). Rethinking Asylum Legal Representation outlines the innovative approaches already undertaken by some asylum charities trying to maintain quality work against all the odds. Right First Time is Asylum Aid’s account of its seminars with asylum officials. The consensus emerging from these meetings was winningly simple: government and lawyers should stop lobbing insults at one another and start working together on making better decisions.
This is where the ideas are currently coming from. Far from wasting public money – a charge so often laid at the door of asylum lawyers – it is the innovation of good solicitors which is stretching value-for-money as far as it can possibly go and extending quality advice to as many beneficiaries as possible. Asylum charities are already trialling the best ways to pool expertise and collaborate in helping the widest possible number of people. There is plenty of smart and effective work out there, and this is what is keeping high quality legal representation alive for now.
But it can only go so far. The government, too, needs to feed off these ideas, and commit to asylum reforms which guarantee quality legal advice at their heart. There is an important conversation to have, and it must start here.