Who’d be an asylum lawyer?

It is fair to say that you would not become an asylum lawyer out of a desire to be loved. In the tabloid press you are portrayed either as skulking around the docks in the dead of night touting for work or as one of the fat cat lawyers made rich by the taxpayers’ money. And so it will be heartening to see not just the usual suspects – ie the lawyers, refugee campaigners and civil libertarians – coming together in collective outrage at the Government’s shameful decision to cap legal aid advice to asylum seekers to five hours, but also the UN. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has written to the Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer, reminding him not only that access to a lawyer is an essential procedural safeguard, but also pointing out that “a purely costs-orientated approach” was not likely to reduce overall costs.

The case for reform of a system that has seen legal aid costs spiral, from £81.3m in 2001 to £174.2m in 2003, is irresistible – but the Government’s solution as proposed is a crude one. The human rights argument that it would deny refugees, who are frequently traumatised and unable to communicate, their right to a fair hearing is self-evident. This is backed by new research, which indicates that immigration law practitioners reckon to spend an average of 10 hours on preparing an asylum application.

But the moral case aside, would the proposals work anyway? Self-respecting lawyers would have problems doing their clients’ justice under these new arrangements unless they are prepared to do it pro bono. Of course, it is well documented in the media that there are plenty of dodgy practitioners who do not care about the welfare of their clients and are happy to step into the gap.

The long-term view, however, has to be that any squeeze on rates would have a dangerous effect on access to justice. A recent survey of immigration and asylum practitioners undertaken by the Law Society revealed that almost half (48 per cent) of the respondents would not continue or were unlikely to continue working in this area. A further 11 per cent of the respondents stated specifically that they intended to reduce the number of publicly-funded matters that they worked on, or would be more selective about the cases they take on. Firms would not need much persuading about ditching this tough and underappreciated area of the law – and this could just about do it.