05:20, May 27 295 0 theguardian.com

2017-05-27 05:20:03
public servant: my letter to the public  
 The way asylum seekers are treated in the UK is a silent scandal

As a legal aid caseworker specialising in immigration and asylum, I read the article in this series by an ex-Home Office asylum caseworker with unsurprised dismay.

I want to say this to the Home Office caseworker: legal aid caseworkers like me feel and hear your anxiety, and though we may often be on “the other side”, we fundamentally have the same remit, to ensure that those in need are given a chance to rebuild their lives with dignity. This is being made increasingly difficult, however, due to severe cuts to public services.

The author laments how Home Office caseworkers are poorly trained, under-resourced and tyrannised by performance targets that actively compromise their ability to make a measured decision. The author describes experiencing severe anxiety over cases: “Where’s the back-up, how do you sleep at night if you make a mistake?”

I also provide a service to the public, and I also have sleepless nights. Although my job is to challenge and rectify the unlawful decision-making of such Home Office caseworkers, I was seized with a powerful sense of solidarity with the author.

Mistakes are routinely made by the Home Office, and legal aid lawyers have to pick up the pieces. We work to ensure that the government doesn’t violate human rights or international law, but the legal aid world is underfunded and overstretched. Some of the pieces are never picked up.

When the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 came into force, huge areas of immigration law were taken out of the scope for legal aid. A claim based, for instance, only on Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights (the right to a private and family life) is no longer within the scope of legal aid, nor is assistance with family reunion.

The Civil Legal Aid Regulations 2014 put a further strain on the legal aid world. Making an application to challenge an unlawful government decision or policy by way of judicial review requires long hours of preparation, but under these government regulations, if the court refuses permission, we may well not be paid for this preparatory work.

The vast majority of legal aid lawyers are in the field because they believe passionately in the right of justice for all, but the work can be a struggle; physically and emotionally knackering.

But of course the real victims of all this are not the legal aid lawyers or the Home Office caseworkers; they are the asylum-seekers, horrified to be told that the UK does not deem them worthy of protection.

Many asylum-seekers are then held in costly detention centres for years, despite our efforts to secure their release, while their cases are dragged through our over-stretched courts, with appeal after appeal, to the detriment of the physical and mental health of the asylum-seeker, before they are finally recognised as refugees.

One of our clients, with severe mental health issues, was detained for a cumulative period of over six years. In another case, a lone Albanian mother and her young child were initially refused asylum but five years later, after three judicial reviews and one appeal hearing, the Home Office eventually recognised them as refugees.

The Home Office caseworker mentioned that they are “disincentivised” to call social services when concerned about a child since, as this is not an asylum “end-decision”, the work does not count towards their annual target of 220 units.

In publicly funded cases our time is also divided up into units, of six minutes. To justify how monies are being spent, we are required to demonstrate that each unit of our work charged is reasonable, substantively progresses the case, and is within the scope of government legal aid regulations.

Nevertheless, in some cases, where a judicial review claim has been successful and costs are awarded by the court to the asylum-seeker’s representatives, the Home Office regularly challenges the necessity of the work that has been undertaken on the basis that it does not fit within their narrow conception of client care. For instance, they often question the length of time we spend with clients to find out why and how they fled their homes. The Home Office seems to underestimate how long it can take for an asylum-seeker to feel able to disclose their traumatic past.

Cuts to public spending have also had a practical impact on the ability of the Home Office and the courts to respond to our calls. Hours are wasted waiting “in line” or vainly calling a number that has been changed, yet again.

We are shamefully aware that while we fiddle about on the phone, our client is languishing in a detention centre, possibly contemplating their return flight set for that evening.

This deplorable state of affairs has not gone unnoticed in the courts. In the case of client detained despite evidence that he was a victim of torture, the Home Office admitted that they had failed to consider this evidence because they lacked the resources to do so. The High Court judge came down hard on them: ‘I accept the explanation about the lack of resources, but it does not provide any legal justification for the lack of action’. The detention was declared unlawful.

In another case, a High Court judge described the detention of one of our clients, a victim of torture and rape, as “utterly unreasonable and truly, in my judgement, disgraceful”.

So here, in solidarity, I join the ex-Home Office caseworker in speaking out against this silent scandal.

  • Patrick Page is an immigration and asylum caseworker at Duncan Lewis Solicitors, the biggest supplier of legal aid in the UK.

This series aims to give a voice to the staff behind the public services that are hit by mounting cuts and rising demand, and so often denigrated by the press, politicians and public. If you would like to write an article for the series, contact kirstie.brewer@theguardian.com

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