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October 21, 2022

Legal aid funding system fails trafficking survivors

A new report by the Anti Trafficking Labour and Exploitation Unit (ATLEU) published this week reveals the devastating consequences of the lack of access to legal aid for many survivors of trafficking and modern-day slavery. 

 

Legal aid exists to help those who cannot afford to pay for legal costs to access legal advice, family mediation and representation in a court or tribunal. For victims of modern slavery, legal aid is hugely important – many need legal advice and representation on matters such as immigration and asylum, debt advice, criminal law, civil compensation, criminal injuries compensation, welfare benefits and housing. But virtually none can afford the legal costs involved. 

 

One of Hope for Justice’s Independent Modern Slavery Advocates explained: “Most people who escape modern slavery require access to immigration advice and legal representation to stabilise their status in the UK. Having secure status is a fundamental building block for their recovery as well as accessing many support systems, including housing and welfare benefits.” 

 

Since the passage of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and the decision to reclassify modern slavery as an ‘illegal immigration and asylum’ issue, victims of modern slavery will have an even greater need for specialist legal advice and representation. Without this, they are more likely to face detention and/or removal instead of support and safeguarding. 

 

But ATLEU’s research shows that a lack of government funding is severely limiting victims’ access to legal aid. Because victims of trafficking and modern slavery typically have lengthy, complex cases, it is financially unviable for many legal aid-funded providers to take them on. 

 

ATLEU surveyed frontline support and advocacy organisations serving survivors of modern slavery and human trafficking, at the end of July 2022. Of the 86 respondents: 

 

  • 90% said they had struggled to find a legal aid immigration lawyer for a potential or confirmed victim of modern slavery 
  • Three quarters (76%) reported significant delays, of up to three months or longer, in finding an immigration legal aid lawyer, and nearly half (43%) said it took six months or longer 
  • 56% said that they were concerned often, most, or all of the time, about the quality of legal advice. Without sufficient funding, respondents felt lawyers either rushed the case or could not afford to take on enough to develop thoroughgoing expertise in the issues faced by victims of modern slavery 

 

ATLEU also found that the implications of the lack of legal aid on victims’ outcomes are often devastating. 

 

  • Virtually all respondents (97%) said it caused survivors stress, anxiety or contributed to poor mental health 
  • Over half (55%) said it left survivors in destitution or unable to access appropriate accommodation or support 
  • 57% said it meant survivors were unable to claim asylum  
  • 3 in 10 (29%) said it left survivors in an exploitative situation 

 

Philippa Roberts, Head of Policy and Research at Hope for Justice, says in the report: “If clients are referred into Hope for Justice’s Independent Modern Slavery Advocacy service destitute and homeless, the common factor in them ending up destitute and homeless is that they did not have access to early legal advice or in fact any legal advice.” 

 

Our IMSAs work tirelessly to help survivors access safe housing, the welfare benefits they are entitled to, immigration advice, and legal representation. For example, when Hui*, a teenager who had been trafficked to the UK, was arrested for crimes he committed under duress, we were able to connect him with public law firm DPG. We also wrote letters to the Crown Prosecution Service on Hui’s behalf, attended the medical assessments which formed part of his case, and supported him at court. Thankfully the CPS decided to drop the charges against Hui. Without the support of his IMSA and his legal aid-funded representation, Hui could have ended up in prison for crimes he had been forced to commit. 

 

But limited access to legal aid means that many survivors are not so fortunate. For example, we have recently approached multiple solicitors, organisations and law centres to help a male survivor  with his complex immigration case, but everyone either has a full caseload, doesn’t have a legal aid contract, or both. While his immigration application is outstanding, he cannot secure appropriate accomodation and this, together with the fear of returning home and being re-trafficked, is having a severe impact on his mental health.

 

Because of cases like these, earlier this year, we joined with ATLEU, Focus on Labour Exploitation, Simpson Millar and Survivor Collective to ask the Government to scrap means testing for legal aid for victims and potential victims of modern slavery. 

 

In light of ATLEU’s new research, we are joining them to also call on the Government to: 

 

  • Pay immigration legal advisors for trafficking and modern slavery cases on an hourly basis, and raising these rates so that this vital work doesn’t die out completely 
  • Introduce a legal aid contract for trafficking and modern slavery compensation claims to encourage more providers to engage in this work 

 

Philippa Roberts said: “The lack of legal representation is a problem frequently experienced by our team. So, we were pleased to be able to feed into ATLEU’s research and we hope that their report brings attention to the urgent need for better access to legal aid.  Greater access to legal advice will reduce the risks of destitution, homelessness, and mental health issues faced by many survivors of modern slavery. If we want to offer survivors a fresh start and a brighter future, we cannot afford to deny them this support.”