By Rebekah Curtis
LONDON (TrustLaw) – The UK government’s planned cuts to its legal aid scheme will severely disadvantage migrant and refugee women, who may lack knowledge of the UK legal system and family support or face language barriers, campaigners say.
The reforms, proposed by the government in November, would cut legal aid from civil areas including immigration, housing, employment and debt, unless a person’s life, home or freedom is at risk.
Lawyers and aid organisations argue the scheme’s harshest cuts since its 1949 inception will deny some half a million people justice.
“This is a major shift and poses a serious threat to fundamental
principles of equal access to justice,” Zrinka Bralo, executive director of the London-based Migrant and Refugee Communities Forum in London, told TrustLaw.
“Migrant and refugee women are disadvantaged because they may not speak English well enough, they do not know what support and protection is available to them, they may be traumatised and may not have support networks of family and friends.”
Under the proposals, private family law cases would be denied legal aid funding unless domestic violence was involved.
Nonetheless, migrant and refugee women who experience domestic violence will be disadvantaged because their immigration status is linked to that of their husbands, or claimed by their husbands, Bralo said.
Even if they leave their partners and get help, free immigration advice and representation may not be available to help them secure stay independently, she added.
She voiced concern that changes to the system will harm the community advice sector, creating confusion and complications that will leave vulnerable people in “advice limbo.”
LACK OF ADVICE
UK Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said the cuts to the 2.1-billion-pound legal aid scheme would prevent costly and often unnecessary litigation at taxpayers’ expense, saying the system was one of the most expensive in the world.
The government has suggested pro bono work could help cover shortfalls created by the cuts, which are designed to reduce legal aid costs by 350 million pounds within four years.
But many lawyers disagree, pointing out that law firms that do pro bono would not have the expertise to represent legal aid clients alone, and the Law Society, which represents solicitors, has urged the government to reconsider the plans which it has called “ill-conceived and unfair.”
“Pro bono advice is great, but we cannot base our country's entire casework for one area of the law on pro bono advice,” Bralo said.
“The frontline migrant and refugee support sector would need additional infrastructure and costs to administer and facilitate it. Pro bono work is spread too thinly as it is.”
Many voluntary advice organisations that facilitate pro bono work – law centres and Citizens Advice Bureaux – will lose 77 percent of their legal aid income, according to the Law Centres Federation.
Charities that give refugees and migrants free legal advice have already collapsed due to changes and restrictions in how legal aid is funded, Bralo pointed out.
Tens of thousands of vulnerable people are in a legal advice “no man’s land” after last year’s closure of Refugee and Migrant Justice and the recent closure of the Immigration Advisory Service, she said.
Bralo added that matching pro bono expertise and interests with often complex cases involving two or more areas of law – such as immigration and housing – is already a time-consuming process.
“Many of the refugees and migrants that we see and support need urgent advice and intervention, and finding pro bono lawyers takes time,” she said. “Equality before the law is meaningless without equal access to it.”
For a FACTBOX on the cuts, see here.
(Editing by Astrid Zweynert)