A lawyer is charging Suleiman £900 for an application that should be free for him as a refugee.
I strain to understand what Amir* is saying; his English is broken and the phone signal in Brook House immigration removal centre is notoriously bad. “I have a ticket for Friday” he says. It’s Monday. I’m not sure what to say. “Do you have a lawyer?” I ask limply. I’m not optimistic.
Most likely, Amir does not have a lawyer. He might not know how to go about getting one. One in three people in detention do not know they are entitled to 30 minutes of free legal advice. It’s also possible that Amir’s case is not in the scope of Legal Aid since the cuts. Best case scenario is that Amir is entitled to Legal Aid and does understand the Legal Aid ‘surgery’ system in England’s immigration removal centres. But he will be told that he must wait for an appointment, as most people have to wait over 1 week and there is no official mechanism to prioritise people. The Home Office will have forcibly removed Amir before he has a chance to secure legal representation.
Or maybe Amir does have a lawyer — one that he is paying for privately. He will be paying privately because, due to those practical and administrative barriers, he cannot get Legal Aid. Amir’s private lawyer might have come recommended by someone in his community. Amir might be very happy with his lawyer, because they’re not letting on how bad the situation is, merely feeding Amir with legal sounding lies. Amir might also be angry at his lawyer, for being unresponsive or incompetent.
Dr Barbara Harrell-Bond, founder of the Refugee Studies centre at Oxford University and the Rights in Exile Program, is all too familiar with these scenarios.
She told me of a lawyer selling legal services to asylum seekers and others out of a house in Oxford, even though he’s been struck off.
Another practitioner, known to the Unity Centre where I volunteer, has for years offered women held at the notorious Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre in Bedfordshire free consultations and the option to pay after work done. Sounds attractive? Time and time again he has taken action that has jeapordised women’s cases irreversibly and then pursued them and their families for money.
Unity volunteers try to warn women against him but it’s difficult. Many women see him as their only hope.
Angel, who lives in a city in the north of England, tells me she’s heard that her ‘lawyer’ has almost definitely left the country. She says he’s left with her money and her documents. All her documents. Her and her son’s identity cards, and the photographs and the original papers necessary to substantiate her claim.
I meet Suleiman, an elderly Eritrean man at a drop-in centre. Straightaway he tells me of his mental health issues. “I was in hospital a long time in my country,” he says. Suleiman proudly shows me his Biometric Residence Permit, that coveted pink and blue card that conveys his leave to remain as a refugee. It will expire he explains, this November, and he must pay £900 to renew it. I’m confused by this because I know applications to renew refugee status are free. They are one of the few applications still covered by legal aid and the application itself has no fee for refugees.
I speak to the drop-in centre staff who confirm that they are aware of the situation. But Suleiman’s mind is made up. He wants to use this lawyer and believes it necessary to pay the £900. Such blatant malpractice, preying on the vulnerable, can only be complained about with the consent of Suleiman who does not give it. This lawyer will get his £900 and this lawyer remains untouchable.
I meet Tariq at a community meal, whilst doing outreach for Unity. He came to the UK aged 14 from Iran. He speaks with a Scottish accent and is small, still child-like in appearance. The Home Office refused Tariq’s asylum claim when he first came, but gave him leave to remain in the UK until he was 17 and a half years old. Now he is 19 and awaiting the Home Office to decide on a “fresh claim”. Tariq could be detained and forcibly removed from the UK at any time.
It is standard practice for the Home Office to give children who are refused asylum leave to remain in the UK which expires just before their 18th birthday, it is known as Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Child (or UASC) leave. But being granted UASC leave does not mean your future in the UK is secured, and any competent lawyer would advise a client (child or otherwise) to appeal the refusal of an asylum claim if possible.
I listen to Tariq recount his story. He tells me that he speaks English now and gets what is going on, but in the beginning he didn’t understand anything. Not the English language, nor the UK’s legal processes. “My lawyer told me there was no need to appeal the Home Office’s refusal, because I got leave to remain,” he says. “I had no reason not to trust him, he said he would look after me.” There’s nothing I can say. “My social worker is my witness,” he says. “My lawyer said that, he told me not to appeal even though I could have done, but now he acts like he didn’t. My social worker didn’t know the law either. She listened to my lawyer and she trusted him too.”
With the appeal deadline now long passed, Tariq is what is called “appeal rights exhausted”. Tariq’s lawyer did not apply to extend his UASC leave and instead advised him to make further submissions to the Home Office (often referred to as a “fresh claim”). Tariq had to travel to Liverpool at his own expense to submit this. Now all he can do is wait.
What makes matters worse is that it is apparent Tariq’s lawyer had prepared his fresh claim badly, it is weak when it could be strong. Tariq has been failed and there is no redress, as according to the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission any complaint should be made within 1 year.
Tariq’s lawyer is not what is known as a ‘back-street’ lawyer. He would not be considered a rogue practitioner, in fact he is the principal solicitor of a well-known high-street firm. His bad practice is testament to the deplorable quality of representation that those seeking asylum or with irregular immigration status may encounter.
Why is this happening?
I asked former barrister and vice-chair of the Institute of Race Relations, Frances Webber. She said: “Access to justice has diminished almost to vanishing point, making a mockery of our supposed adherence to values of fairness, justice and the rule of law.” She said: “People who don't have English as their first language are expected to navigate areas acknowledged to be of fiendish legal complexity on their own, without legal help.”
Cuts to Legal Aid implemented on 1 April 2013 have been devastating. The pressure on lawyers has increased, with desperation often leading to shoddy practice. To stay above water, some firms take on too many clients. This means that there is not enough time to communicate with clients or explain things fully.
Alice, a solicitor in a busy Legal Aid immigration firm, tells me: “I have client appointments all day.”
I ask her: “If you see clients all day, when do you do the work that you’re promising in the appointments?”
“I stay late,” she says flatly.
“Does everyone stay late?”
Alice gives me a look.
Asylum seekers and other migrants may have multiple vulnerabilites. Denied the right to work, threatened with removal, maybe locked up or living in dangerous accommodation, struggling with language difficulties. People’s lives often depend on remaining in the UK.
They’re perfect prey for dodgy lawyers.
Making a complaint against a lawyer is a complicated and laborious process. One that requires a good grasp of the English language, time, energy and confidence. The bigger the mistake a lawyer makes, the worse a situation a person is likely to be in. Securing alternative legal representation and taking steps to regularise immigration status will be likely priorities, not engaging in the bureaucratic complaints process. Lawyers can therefore bet safely that those they wrong are not likely to seek redress.
Many Legal Aid firms continue to do right by their clients, including law centres across the UK who recognise the benefits of supplementing Legal Aid income with other funding. But securing funding is a job in itself. The odds are against the good guys. These stories are those that I have encountered personally in the last few months. There must be countless others.
* All clients’ names have been changed. If you are interested in assisting people to make complaints about immigration lawyers, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Editing and images by Clare Sambrook for Shine A Light.