There was a collective sigh of relief from immigration law practitioners last week when MPs rapped ministers’ knuckles over plans to reduce costs by capping legal aid asylum advice at five hours. It comes as little surprise.
So unfair and counterproductive were the proposed time limits that they prompted protest from a wide coalition of critics, including not just the usual suspects (lawyers, civil libertarians and asylum campaigners), but even the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who complained to the Lord Chancellor of the “purely cost-orientated approach”, which would be likely to harm the most deserving cases while “not reducing overall costs in the long term”.
On Friday (31 October), the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee published a damning report decrying the proposals as “hurried and not thought through”. “We conclude that the Department needs to undertake serious further work before it is able to put any sensible proposals on the table,” argued the report.
Refreshingly, the MPs looked at how the Government’s proposals might affect the profession in the long term – a point of view ministers have apparently failed to take into account so far. During the course of the evidence, it was revealed that in a recent meeting of the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, that 56 of the 60 firms present indicated that they would consider pulling out of this highly pressurised, much criticised and poorly-rewarded area of legal advice. Alison Stanley, chair of the Law Society’s immigration law committee, told the committee that such a response would be “extremely worrying” for all concerned. “In our view, that would leave only the poorest practitioners who would think that they could do a decent job in the capped hours… left in the system,” she said.
While giving evidence, Stanley also announced a new accreditation scheme for legal aid asylum advisers (see last week’s Newswire). It would be compulsory, as opposed to the Law Society’s immigration law panel’s scheme, and tougher than anything imposed by the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (which covers those agencies not regulated by the Law Society). Such a scheme receives a strong endorsement from the MPs. But, as Stanley noted, it is an approach that is “diametrically opposed” to crude time-capping. The report will make an informative read for Home Office ministers.