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Wednesday, 13 July 2011

In UK, legal aid cuts will make LGBT asylum even harder

United KingdomImage by stumayhew via Flickr
By Paul Canning

The announcement Monday 11 July that the UK's the largest specialist immigration advice charity, the Immigration Advisory Service (IAS), had entered administration means that numerous LGBT asylum seekers are now desperately seeking another legal advisor. As of the time of writing, there are hopes that some offices may be able to continue under new management. The IAS website has information on what clients should do.

The charity was representing over 10,000 clients. Its collapse follows that of Refugee and Migrant Justice (RMJ), which also served many LGBT clients, last year.

RMJ closed due to financial trouble in June 2010, attributing the situation to changes that now see organisations paid a flat fee on completion of cases rather than based on how long they take. Flat fees have been blamed for less scrupulous solicitors spending less time on cases, potentially weakening their client's position. Similar to IAS, RMJ also blamed the withholding of fee payments by the government for their closure.

But IAS has also blamed cuts to legal aid for its closure. The government says it wants to save £350m. Numerous refugee charities have warned that the cuts will seriously effect refugees and asylum seekers and this government has pushed the line that asylum seekers will lose legal advice if they are refused and fight removal.

As we have documented in numerous cases, LGBT asylum seekers appear to be almost always refused at the initial stages of their case and there have been suggestions that some refusals may be because UK Border Agency (UKBA) officers deliberately push decision making to the courts. Many cases are only won after a lengthy - and expensive - legal process due to the intransigence and resistance of Home Office lawyers and early, evidently wrong, decision making by UKBA.

These latest cuts follow increasing restrictions on access to legal advice for asylum seekers by the previous government.

A senior IAS official told The Guardian:
"We are very worried about the impact on our clients. Not only had legal aid payments been delayed, but all immigration cases will be put out of the scope of legal aid [in the government's bill] and those left were subject to a 10% cut in cash terms."

Individuals pursuing immigration claims would find it hard to secure other lawyers willing to take on their cases, he feared.
Britain's largest specialist advice service for LGBT asylum seekers, UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group (UKLGIG), has said that there is already a severe shortage of legal providers with specialist skills - reductions in legal aid funding will shrink the number further still.

In their comments to the government's consultation, they point out that one of the cases that formed the landmark Supreme Court gay asylum ruling last July was almost derailed at one point because legal aid was stopped and a solicitor forced to withdraw from the case. 'HJ' (the Cameroonian, the other case considered in the ruling was Iranian) was only able to find a new lawyer after he discovered UKLGIG.
"UKLGIG knows that when the last tranche of legal aid cuts were implemented, many solicitor firms decided to cease working on legal aid cases. This has a direct impact on our ability to be able to assign a solicitor to LGBTI asylum seekers."

"UKLGIG is currently experiencing growing demand for our services and our monthly asylum support meetings are now attracting around sixty asylum seekers on average ... Many of our clients have difficulty securing legal representation from a solicitor with experience of working on LGBTI asylum claims even under the present legal aid system, so the proposed changes have the potential to further undermine access to justice."
The government has said that no immigration claims based on the 'family life' provision, article eight, of the European Convention on Human Rights will be funded. UKLGIG believes this will particularly effect LGBT - whose right to 'family life' was only agreed in June 2010:
"Claiming asylum can be an extremely daunting procedure, and therefore the ability to apply for leave to remain on a non-asylum basis can be viewed as being “safer”."
"By placing immigration cases which involve article 8 outside the scope for legal aid funding, this will ultimately close the door to LGBTI marginalized applicants, who have only recently been able to access article 8 rights protection, in situations where they do not have access to other means of financial support.14."
"UKLGIG is therefore firmly of the view that sexual identity and gender identity claims which give rise to article 8, should be exempted from any policy which does not provide for legal aid in immigration."
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