My seventeenth story of injustice relates to some of the typical difficulties which asylum-seekers face under LASPO.
This story describes very bad advice by a social worker; long journeys to access a legal aid solicitor; and the trauma that occurs when the asylum-seeker is relocated to a different part of the UK, where she knows no one, while her application sstill pending..
The problems if an asylum seeker is dispersed to another part of the country
Ms B and her young daughter fled domestic violence from Ms B’s husband. They were living in West London. She was an ‘overstayer’ from India but did not know this as her husband was in control of her immigration matters. Moreover, she was unaware of her husband’s own immigration status as he had never been open with her about it. Ms B was advised by her social worker to go to Lunar House and claim asylum and booked her a taxi for this purpose.
When challenged by an advice agency as to what qualifications he had to give such advice, the social worker became defensive and said it had ‘worked’ for other clients. The agency advised Ms B not to present at Lunar House until she had obtained proper legal advice in respect of her immigration matter. After two months of searching for a legal aid solicitor who had the capacity to take on Ms B’s case, she received an appointment with a legal aid immigration solicitor in the north of London, a journey which regularly took her up to an hour and a half by public transport.
Ms B first saw her solicitor in December 2015, and over the next four months her solicitor spent a great deal of time working on the case and built a trusting relationship with Ms B. The solicitor was also able to organise the same experienced interpreter for Ms B for each appointment. This was very helpful since the interpreter also formed an excellent professional relationship and rapport with her.
Ms B went on to make an application for asylum and was granted NASS support whilst her claim was pending. She was, however, told that she would be dispersed to an unknown location in the country. Ms B was then advised by her solicitor that if she was dispersed out of London, she would be unable to continue to provide legal advice and representation due to the distance and costs involved.
The solicitor explained that the Legal Aid Agency would not fund her travel and would instead expect Ms B to access legal advice in her own area. Ms B – an isolated and very vulnerable woman – was left in a state of great anxiety and fear as she did not know if she would find a new solicitor and interpreter that she could trust. She was also worried about being made to relive painful and sensitive aspects of her case at a time when she was struggling to overcome her experiences of violence and abuse.
Southall Black Sisters told the Bach Commission:
A particularly difficult and distressing outcome for our users who claim asylum is the fact that even when their case is taken on by a legal aid solicitor, they find themselves having to seek a new legal aid solicitor when they are dispersed to another area. As we understand it, the LAA will not cover the costs of a solicitor travelling to their client beyond a limited distance. The client is therefore expected to find a solicitor and build trust all over again with a new solicitor in her new location.
The reality is that the client not only struggles to find any legal aid solicitors in their new area, but even if she does, she is forced to re-tell her story and in doing so is often re-traumatised. We cannot help but think this state of affairs represents a false economy on the part of the LAA. By making it financially unfeasible for solicitors to ensure continuity of representation; they are transferring and even increasing costs elsewhere – the emotional cost to the client as well as the financial cost – since a new solicitor will have to expend time and costs getting acquainted with the facts and indeed with the client. This case highlights the problem.
We encounter so many cases in which what seems to be a sensible cost-saving poicy in fact leads to much greater expense – and added trauma.