Immigration lawyers hit out at the Government’s plans to cap publicly-funded advice to asylum seekers at a maximum five hours of initial legal advice, as responses were submitted to the Department for Constitutional Affairs last week.

In a withering retort, the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association (ILPA) concluded that the proposals represented “a gross and unjustifiable interference with basic principles of access to justice”. The group argued that the proposals (time limits of five hours up to the first decision, four hours for an appeal to an adjudicator and the £150 cash limit for an appeal to the Immigration Appeal Tribunal) were “entirely inadequate for effective representation of a client”.

According to the ILPA: “It will become extremely hard to provide a professional, conscientious service within the time limits proposed. Quality of representation is secured not just by high levels of knowledge and experience, but by spending time on preparing cases. The proposals will drive out many good representatives from the sector, leading to a diminution of quality and an even greater wastage of resources.”

As reported last week on LawZone, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has written to the Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer, reminding him that access to a lawyer is an essential procedural safeguard and that “a purely costs-orientated approach” was not likely to reduce overall costs. The proposals are a way of addressing spiralling legal aid costs, which have risen from £81.3m in 2000-01 to £174.2m in 2002-03.

Lawyers are united in their opposition to the plans. Law Society Chief Executive Janet Paraskeva said: “Many asylum applicants don’t speak English and using interpreters doubles the amount of time a solicitor must spend with clients. Complex cases and those involving children or people with serious health problems cannot be prepared properly in five hours.” According to the Law Society’s research, the average length of time taken to prepare an asylum application is 10 hours. Civil rights group Liberty argued that the plans would be counterproductive, as they would deter good practitioners, who would be unprepared to do work with such constraints upon them, but that it would encourage the lower-quality practitioners. Liberty called for an accreditation panel to ensure the quality of practitioners, as well as “a concerted effort” to ensure that quality was achieved.

Both the Law Society and the ILPA questioned the rationale for limiting advice to five hours and commented that no justification had been presented in the Government paper for the move. According to the ILPA: “The proposals reverse entirely the recent efforts by the [Law Society Council] and the legal profession to encourage and develop high standards of advice. They are ill-considered and logically flawed.” The group concluded that the Government paper was “illogical, unjust and misconceived”.