By Jill Rutter
On a normal Friday morning the offices of Refugee and Migrant Justice (RMJ) were busy with clients queuing up to attend appointments with their caseworkers. Today the 13 offices of RMJ are closed. The charity has folded, leaving up to 10,000 vulnerable people without legal representation. It is one of the biggest charity crashes in UK history. RMJ’s demise raises many important issues about the delivery of legal aid, about ‘advice’ for vulnerable people and about the dependence of charities on government funding.
Refugee and Migrant Justice was founded in 1992 at a time when asylum applications were increasing in the UK. Over the last 18 years it had given legal advice and representation to over 110,000 clients in its many offices and outreach surgeries across England and Wales. In recent years, just over half of its clients were asylum applicants. The charity also helped significant numbers of people who were living illegally in the UK present the full facts of their case to the UK Border Agency and obtain legal status or understand why they cannot obtain it.
RMJ had built a reputation for taking on complex asylum and immigration cases, often those that had been rejected by other firms of solicitors. There is considerable ‘cherry picking’ of asylum and immigration cases by some firms of solicitors, a trend worsened by a fixed fee system for legally-aided asylum and immigration. Research has shown that unscrupulous law firms are more than willing to take on easy cases, knowing that the fixed fee will more than cover their costs. But complex cases, for example, those of stateless persons, are turned away.
Over the years, RMJ’s work righted many wrongs. It secured the return to the UK of John Bosco Nyombi, a gay Ugandan man who was unlawfully removed from the UK. Nyombi was picked up by the UK Border Agency and told he was be taken to an interview about his case. Instead of taking him for this interview, Nyombi’s mobile phone was taken from him and he was flown back to Uganda. After his arrival in his home country, Nyombi was detained and beaten.
RMJ’s test cases clarified law and often had brought benefits to groups of people. In 2009 it won the cases of AH (Iraq) and QD (Iraq), which centred on the interpretation of Article 15c of the 2004 EU Qualification Directive. This case now means that the UK has to offer humanitarian protection to people fleeing indiscriminate violence, and has the potential to benefit Iraqis, Congolese and Somalis among others. Incredibly, before this test case, endangered people seeking sanctuary in the UK had to prove that the dangers they faced were above and beyond that of the general population.
All this work has now ceased, and RMJ had been brought down by changes to the payment system for legal aid introduced in 2009. RMJ and others who provided legal advice for low income groups used to be paid monthly on account by the Legal Services Commission. Since last year, charities like RMJ and law centres have only been paid when cases were closed. Yet complex asylum cases many take many months or even years to complete. In the meantime staff and interpreters have to be paid. And unlike private law firms with larger amounts of working capital, legal charities find it difficult to borrow money to overcome cash flow problems. While RMJ was most exposed, because it took on complex – and lengthy – asylum cases, it is likely that changes to the legal aid payment system will force many law centres to go under in the next year, leaving many poor people, from all communities, without access to justice.
The coalition government’s vision of a flourishing civil society sector rings very hollow among for those working for legal charities. Increasingly, charities are bidding for government contracts and some have become very reliant on single contracts to finance their work. Delays in payments or a change in the terms of grant have the potential to close charities. The sector needs to re-assess its reliance on government grants and review the role of non-governmental organisations.
RMJ, law centres and reputable private firms of solicitors, take their cases from start to finish. But some organisations who claim to offer legal advice do not do this. Rather they assess a person’s case, then refer them on to other law firms, law centres or organisations such as RMJ. The legal aid payment system allows this, although it is a very inefficient way of operating. Some charitable trusts are also over-enthusiastic about funding referral services, or advice leaflets, neither of which solve problems.
Many excluded people needing all types of advice – both UK-born and migrants – will talk of being sent from organisation to organisation in an unsuccessful search for help. ‘Leaflet and referral overload’ is a term used by some refugee and migrant groups, to describe a system where vulnerable people are continually referred on to other organisations, without any attempt to solve their problems. RMJ’s closure has highlighted many things that are wrong with the advice sector in the UK. We need to offer the type of assistance that solves problems at the first instance, rather than endless and wasteful referral services.
Jill Rutter was the Head of Policy and Communications at Refugee and Migrant Justice. She is now unemployed.