By Emma Foster
More than three quarters (79%) of asylum seekers are being wrongly refused publicly-funded legal representation for their asylum appeals in Devon and Cornwall, according to research published today.
Since June 2007, The Devon Law Centre has been referred 75 asylum seekers refused Controlled Legal Representation on the grounds that their cases had insufficient merit, as part of a project.
The centre appealed against those refusals to an Independent Funding Adjudicator, and 59 of those appeals were allowed.
The Devon Law Centre's report on the project found that at least 30% of these 59 asylum seekers went on to be successfully granted asylum or were found to have a legal right to some other form of protection, such as discretionary leave.
It said denying genuine asylum seekers the opportunity to present their case as effectively as possible often resulted in the dismissal of their claim and their forced return to face persecution or a life of unlawful existence in the UK.
The Devon Law Centre warned that recent reforms to legal aid have made it harder for asylum seekers to get a fair hearing.
The report features several case studies in which people were only recognised as refugees after the project had secured representation for them at appeal.
In one case, a Chinese woman who had been detained and tortured for her trade union activities was refused asylum at her first appeal where she was unrepresented, but was granted a second appeal, which she won, after the project obtained legal representation for her.
Jean-Benoit Louveaux, the asylum appellate lawyer who runs the project, said: "Asylum seekers come to the UK fleeing persecution such as torture, rape, indefinite imprisonment without trial, and extra-judicial execution.
"It is a damning indictment of the UK that those seeking sanctuary here are then denied a fair hearing.
"The project has shown that recent reforms to legal aid have made it much harder for asylum seekers with a valid claim to prove their case.
"If the project's results were repeated across the country, it would mean that asylum seekers are being wrongly refused publicly-funded legal representation for their appeals in almost four out of every five cases - and that a significant number of these people have a legitimate claim to some form of protection.
"It is time we acknowledge that asylum seekers do not represent a large wave of illegal immigration but a small persecuted minority which the UK Government has abandoned."
A Legal Services Commission spokesperson said: "The Legal Services Commission (LSC) believes that a client's legal representative is best placed to decide whether their client's appeal has sufficient merit for public funding.
"If Devon Law Centre (or indeed anyone) has concerns that legal representatives are failing in that task then we would ask them to contact the LSC.
"In our December 2009 edition of Focus magazine we reminded all providers of their contractual obligations where they refuse to grant their client public funding for their asylum or immigration appeal.
"We do not accept that the 2007 funding reforms have impacted on how legal representatives apply the merits test for appeal funding. Indeed we note that the report suggest that research would be required to investigate their 'suspicion'."
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: "We have no evidence to suggest that our reforms have impacted on how legal representatives apply the merits test for appeal funding.
"The legal aid budget has experienced an extraordinary rate of growth from £545 million in 1982/83 to about £2.1 billion in 2008/09 - an increase of 5.3% a year.
"Legal aid is there to help those most at need in our society and, at a time when workers from all sectors are being forced to re-evaluate their earnings, we have a duty to ensure that the legal aid budget is used effectively and efficiently on behalf of the taxpayer.
"Even with the necessary savings and reforms, our system of legal aid - civil and criminal - will still be far and away the best funded in the world."
Law Centres are not-for-profit legal practices providing free legal advice and representation to disadvantaged people.