By Owen Bowcott and Natalie Hanman
For two hours Osman Rasul perched on railings surrounding the seventh floor balcony of a Nottingham tower block. He blanked out police officers attempting to talk him down and at 7pm last Sunday, placing his hand on his heart, he looked up to the sky and leapt.
The 27-year-old Iraqi Kurd, classified by the local refugee centre as a "destitute asylum-seeker" and in a fraying relationship with the mother of his two children, had lost the legal aid he needed to pursue his application to remain in the UK. A trip south to confront Home Office immigration officers in Croydon saw him being turned away and told to find a solicitor.
Nine years of legal limbo, his friends suggested, had induced mounting desperation. Rasul anticipated deportation and all hopes of a life in Britain had evaporated by the time he jumped from Clifford Court tower. The waiting ambulance carried his body to the Queen's Medical Centre. At 7.21pm he was pronounced dead.
Rasul's inability to disentangle his life from the multiple restrictions of the immigration system were not unique. His problems became more acute last month when the charity Refugee and Migrant Justice (RMJ) was forced into administration, depriving him of access to legal aid and expert immigration advice.
The organisation blamed its demise on a policy of delayed payment by the Legal Services Commission [LSC], which runs the legal aid system in England and Wales. Charities including Amnesty International and Barnado's, as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury, had unsuccessfully lobbied the government to tackle the cash flow issue.On its dissolution the RMJ warned: "The legal representation of more than 10,000 vulnerable asylum seekers and victims of trafficking, including nearly 900 separated children, is now at risk."
Joanna Petersen, a former case worker for RMJ, said the number of lawyers and immigration advisers available to handle cases declined rapidly after changes made by the LSC four years ago meant solicitors were only paid fixed fees at the end of each case. "RMJ asked the government for it to be paid money it was already owed," Petersen explained. "The answer that came back [in June] was no. So we had to pack everything up. The worst part was boxing up files on which we wrote 'Urgent, Victim of Torture' or 'A Minor, Trafficking Victim' — and not knowing when the cases will ever be dealt with."
According to campaigners and lawyers, the reduction in legal aid is part of a broader national pattern that risks leaving hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable people, including asylum seekers and victims of domestic violence, without access to advice.
The £2bn legal aid budget is already expected to be one of the hardest hit in Whitehall, with justice secretary Kenneth Clarke specifying in a recent interview that it was one area "where our cuts can come from".
"The LSC thinking was that they didn't need RMJ because they had plenty of suppliers willing to take on any new cases," Steve Hynes, director of LAG. "It must have been a political decision because it doesn't make financial sense. Everyone who knows about case work knows it isn't as simple as picking up a new case from another firm – there are always extra costs involved."The Law Society says firms providing legal aid are being "wiped out" by changes to the tendering process in which firms competitively bid for and are allocated legal aid work. In the family law sector – which covers domestic violence work – almost half (1,300) of the 2,400 firms have lost their bids, while only 252 of 410 firms applying for immigration and asylum work won contracts.
"Towns up and down the country have been left without a firm," said Richard Miller, head of legal aid policies at the Law Society. "Some firms can switch to private work and keep going. In a lot of cases the firms will collapse and the lawyers will become insolvent, closing down without finishing their current cases. Possibly hundreds of thousands of clients will have lost their current lawyer and will have to find another one."
The LSC insists its new tendering system works well. Its chair, Sir Bill Callaghan, said: "We are confident that we now have a quality provider base, and quality-assured advice provision across England and Wales."
Rasul, who arrived in Britain in 2001 claiming he was in danger from the Kurdish political factions that control northern Iraq, had been refused permission to stay in Britain once but was preparing a fresh claim. He had been receiving food parcels and £10 a month from a local charity, the Nottingham Refugee Forum. He was not allowed to work. "He was living on £20 a month in charitable donations plus gifts of food," said Bea Tobolewska, the manager of the forum. He was not allowed to work. "He was a destitute asylum-seeker and had been sleeping on the streets. When RMJ went into receivership it was his last opportunity of seeing a solicitor," she added.
For the last few months of his life, Rasul relied on the kindness of friends in Nottingham to provide support. Harry Woolner, who works with the homeless in the city, gave him shelter. "Osman had no resources," Woolner said. "He had gone through a traumatic period."
Receiving a letter from RMJ saying they could not help him any more was the last straw, said Woolner.
"He felt he was never able to take control of his life. He was frustrated that his case had not been progressed so he decided to go down to the Home Office [immigration centre] in Croydon and 'hand himself in', saying: 'Either send me home or help me'. He felt he was taking control at last. It was a brave thing to do. But when he got there they said 'Who are you? We don't know you. Get a solicitor'. In terms of his mental state it was too much to take.
"In London he stayed with friends some of the time but also slept rough and was not eating well. He was mentally and physically exhausted when he came back. We didn't realise the severity of the situation.
"He went out for a bike ride on the Sunday," Woolner said. "We thought that was positive. But he did not come back."
Woolner is now trying to raise money for Rasul's body to be returned to Iraq.Rasul was separated from his Polish partner and the mother of their sons, Malgorzata Gajda, 30, who lives in Coventry. She said he had become increasingly distant from their sometimes tempestuous relationship. "He was on the balcony for two hours, I was told. At 6pm that evening I received a call from a private number. I said 'Hello, hello' but no one answered. I'm sure it was him. He wanted to hear me and the kids for the last time."
"The police tried to keep speaking with him. He was very quiet. Then he put his hand on his heart and looked up to God and jumped."
Dasthy Jamal, of the International Federation of Iraqi Refugees, blamed the immigration system. "The Home Office's immigration policy is responsible for Osman's death. After nearly 10 years he didn't have a chance to build a life here."
A UK Border Agency spokesman said: "Any death of this kind is a tragedy and our deepest sympathies are with Mr Rasul's family and friends. We are working closely with Nottinghamshire police while this matter is being investigated. It would be inappropriate for us to comment further at this stage."