Plans to cut legal aid for solicitors’ services will further undermine the current difficulties in accessing legal aid for the refugee and asylum seeking community. These complications in accessing legal services have been highlighted by IARS’ current user-led research, and have been carried out by refugee and asylum-seeking women who use their own experiences to build this research.

IARS’ action research (2012-2013) project, “Abused no More” is funded by Comic Relief and is supported by the the leading chambers of barristers for human rights, Matrix Chambers “Causes Fund”.

Led by refugee and asylum seeking women, the project engages IARS’ volunteers who receive extensive training in community research to change practice and policy. They chose to focus on two key areas of service provision, health and legal services as they were considered particularly problematic.  Forty six refugee and asylum-seeking women living in London were interviewed and in September 2013 IARS published the research findings in the form of a book entitled “Abused no more: The voices of refugee and asylum seeking women”.

The protection of refugee and asylum-seeking women’s rights is reliant upon their ability to access legal information, advice and representation. Over the years, successive Governments have made a number of changes to the legal aid scheme. On the 9th April 2013 the MOJ published Transforming legal aid: delivering a more credible and efficient system; this was followed by Transforming legal aid: Next Steps published by the Government in September 2013. Those changes could restrict access to UK courts to only those who can afford it, hence constitute an attack on the right to fair trial. However, what makes migrants particularly vulnerable is the fact that according to ECHR the right to a fair trial does not apply in immigration cases.

Key research findings

Based on the IARS’ research, there was a worrying lack of understanding of participants’ rights and entitlements to legal aid as well as poor advice received from friends. This increased refugee women’s reliance on solicitors who could then charge them an often unaffordable rate for their services. Accordingly 20% of the women interviewed said that they had paid for a solicitor because they had not been made aware of their eligibility for legal aid and the majority were referred by friends.

This study also found that there was a severe shortage of legal aid solicitors who would take on asylum cases, resulting in many refugee women traveling long distances to meet with a solicitor or communicating on the telephone with extreme difficulty, due to language barriers.

The number of legal aid solicitors is only likely to further decrease because barristers say that the legal aid cuts have made them unable to afford taking cases which could leave them paid as little as £20 for a day’s work. As a result, barristers no longer wish to carry out this very vital work, and more untrained lawyers make court representations. This also leads to a much greater workload for solicitors who have to handle more work for every case they take on, and consequently, a drop in the quality of their work.

Looking forward, IARS will continue to stress the need for the maintenance of vital public services and a greater sensitivity towards refugee and asylum seeking women’s needs. Training will be delivered to professionals who deal primarily with refugees and asylum seeking women. See more information on the training programme, Gender Sensitivity in the Asylum Process.

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