This morning we went to meet Lord McNally, Minister of State for Justice, with two women who have received legal aid. We wanted the Minister to hear from people who have received legal aid directly what it means to them. As we were waiting to enter the Ministry of Justice we spotted Chris Grayling, so we hand delivered the clients’ letters to him too.
Laila’s story – fighting to be safe from persecution
“I came to this country from Somalia to seek protection. When I made my asylum claim I was put in detention and my case was processed in the Fast Track system. Everything happened so quickly: after just two weeks my case had been refused. The Home Office did not even allow me time to get any evidence to support my case. I did not speak any English then and I did not really understand what was happening. Later I found a legal aid lawyer who helped me to make a fresh asylum claim. My lawyer helped me to get a medical report which was evidence of the scars and the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that I have because of the rape and torture I suffered in Somalia. At first the Home Office refused to look at my new evidence and I had to start a judicial review case against them. Eventually the Home Office accepted that I had made a valid fresh asylum claim, and eventually I was recognised as a Refugee. Without legal aid I think I would be dead because I would have been sent back to Somalia.”
Grace’s story – protection from domestic violence
“I first came to this country with my ex husband. He is a very violent man. He abused and beat me and our children terribly in my country and in the United Kingdom. While I was seeking asylum in this country I had to apply for a non-molestation order against him. Everyday I lived in fear of him. My heart was pounding in my hand. I went to the police but they could not protect me. My legal aid lawyer advised me I could apply for a non molestation order from the court. We made the application and the Judge granted the order.
If it hadn’t been for the help I got through legal aid I would have committed suicide. I was so unwell and scared then that I did not know my left from my right. I was so in fear of the violence of this man that I was thinking of killing myself. Legal aid saved mine and my childrens’ life”.
What the legal aid changes would mean for Laila and Grace
The government’s proposals to introduce a residence test for civil legal aid would mean that an asylum seeker like Laila whose case had initially been refused would not be able to receive legal aid to make a second (‘fresh’) asylum claim. We believe that this will mean that thousands of people will be at risk of being returned to countries where they risk being raped, tortured or killed.
The government’s proposals also mean that someone who has been recognised as a Refugee will not be able to receive legal aid until 12 months after they were granted status. This means that if Grace had had to apply for a non molestation order in the first year after she was recognised as a Refugee – rather than while her asyum claim was ongoing – she would not be able to get any legal aid.
The right to asylum and the need for legal aid
The government consultation recognises that asylum seekers are among the most vulnerable people in society, and says that is why legal aid will still be available for people seeking asylum for the first time. But we can see no justification for cutting legal aid from people making fresh asylum applications. Often such applications are made after there have been changes in the conditions in the asylum seeker’s home country, or after there has been a change in law, or when someone gets new evidence which supports their case. In 2010 for example, the House of Lords decided that it was wrong to expect someone seeking asylum on the grounds of their sexuality to have to go back to their country and simply be ‘discrete’. This landmark judgement meant that many people made successful fresh asylum claims.
We also don’t see how the government’s decision to exclude Refugees from receiving legal aid until they have had status for at least 12 months can be justified. The government says that legal aid should only be available for people who have a ‘strong connection’ to the UK, which it has defined as 12 months lawful residence. But if an exception is made for people seeking asylum, why should the clock be set back to day one when an asylum seeker is actually recognized as a Refugee?
Lord McNally’s reaction to Grace and Laila’s stories
At our meeting today, Lord McNally said it had been “extremely helpful” to hear Laila and Grace’s personal testimony. He accepted that problems such as needing a non molestation order against a violent ex partner require urgent solutions, and that a Refugee in this situation simply cannot wait for 12 months until they would meet the residence test. He stressed that both areas are still under discussion and that he wants to make savings to the legal aid budget without impacting on the most vulnerable. We found his response encouraging, and we hope it signals a change in the government’s thinking on legal aid changes in relation to the residence test and its application to asylum seekers.