Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Displaced life: I fear there will be no legal aid lawyers left

As a person seeking asylum, I know firsthand the importance of access to justice 
December 11, 2023

Dear gentle reader, in 2014 I arrived in the UK and claimed asylum. One of the most stressful experiences for any person seeking asylum in a new country is finding legal representation. The process is a real headache, firstly because you are in a foreign country where you don’t understand the system. Secondly, you may not be able to speak the language. And then theres the plethora of opinions and recommendations coming your way on which firm you should choose to represent you in your asylum claim.

I put all my trust in my first legal aid solicitor and believed in his capabilities. From what I learnt about him and the organisation he worked for,  I could tell he had vast knowledge of the UK asylum system. However, this was the start of my legal aid woes. My solicitor got a student who was not fluent in English to write my opening statement to the Home Office on why I am seeking asylum in the UK.

Fortunately, I saw this and rewrote it before submission. My solicitor never investigated my country’s background nor mine. I offered him information about myself—about what I endured in my native country as an openly gay man, emotionally and physically. He informed me immediately that in my first interview with the Home Office he did not expect success. There was none. I received my first refusal from the Home Office in 2015. For my appeal to the tribunal in Bradford in 2016, he sent me into the lion’s den with a solicitor I had never met or had a conversation with pertaining to my appeal. Agitated and bewildered, I felt unable to ask questions. Feeling misunderstood and abandoned by someone I had entrusted with my future was one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had. I was in such a bad mental state, thinking clearly was not on my agenda. I was in survival mode. 

My solicitor got a student who was not fluent in English to write my opening statement

So, I moved on to another solicitor. I had to use my Section 5 asylum support to pay for her assistance. From 2017 to 2019 there were brief meetings with her, without success in any of my appeals. It was during Covid, in 2020, that I made a decision to gain extensive knowledge of the UK legal aid and asylum system. I acquired a lot of knowledge in that year but I still needed assistance from a solicitor. I submitted two appeals on my own with no success, but my confidence in my abilities grew and continued the fight for my freedom to be me. My LBGTQ charity Time to Be Out got me a new solicitor from an immigration advice centre. She took me on at the end of 2020. 

She did the best she could with my appeals, I must say, especially with her heavy case load of persons seeking asylum. At this time, gentle reader, legal aid solicitors started to turn away failed asylum seekers like me as well as new arrivals, as cuts to legal aid funding have made it hard for legal aid lawyers to break even. Their case load is insurmountable. The government is now facing legal action over a failure to provide free legal advice and representation to persons seeking asylum in the UK.

I will end in saying this to you, gentle reader. Across the UK, the legal aid system is failing. As the Public Law Project describes the situation, there is an “ocean of unmet need”. In many parts of the country, there are no immigration and asylum legal aid lawyers left. The largest private firms providing legal aid in this area of law are barely able to break even. They are subsidising the taxpayer and cannot increase their capacity due to the difficulty in attracting new recruits. Access to justice is so important for persons seeking asylum in the UK, and I fear that in the future there will be no legal aid lawyers left.