Torture survivors must be protected in legal aid reforms
Freedom from Torture Supporters contributed to "over four thousand Valentine’s e-cards" sent to Justice Minister Ken Clarke, urging him to re-think reforms which would harm vulnerable groups including survivors of torture. Find out more about our demands below and thank you for all of your support.
On February 14th, the closing date of the government's consultation on proposed expenditure cuts to legal aid, Freedom from Torture joins the Justice for All campaign to demand the protection of vulnerable groups, including torture survivors.
While some areas of legal aid provision crucial to torture survivors are due to remain, (including asylum, community care, housing, immigration detention and judicial review), Freedom from Torture is gravely concerned about the impact of cuts to the following areas:
Immigration- including Article 8 claims based on family and social relationships and/or health needs linked to survivors rehabilitation relevant to their psychological integrity; family reunion cases for refugees, including in relation to separated or unaccompanied refugee children;
A traumatised torture survivor with limited English language skills simply cannot be expected to identify the basis of a claim in this area, navigating highly complex applicable law and commissioning expert evidence, or to represent him or herself in such matters.
Surely it is not in the interests of the Tribunal or courts to be faced with unrepresented torture survivors lacking supporting evidence or an understanding of the legal issues?
Asylum support cases - Those asylum seekers wrongly denied asylum support are left destitute and many are street homeless; and
Welfare benefits more generally- many Medical Foundation clients who have been recognised as refugees struggle to access mainstream benefits which they are entitled to.The Medical Foundation is concerned that the Ministry of Justice has grossly over-estimated the capacity of the voluntary sector to plug a gap should legal aid be removed. Specialist firms have already departed from these areas, and we understand the capacity of large advice agencies, including Citizens Advice Bureau, will also be significantly reduced due to a combination of local authority and legal aid cuts. This would be further compounded with a separate proposal to reduce legal aid fees by 10%.
Private law children and family cases - Without legal aid, many Medical Foundation clients with children who have separated from their partners will be unable to apply to the family court for a contact or residence order. This could cause a seriously detrimental impact on the mental health of any affected clients and would likely set back their rehabilitation.
So how can expenditure be reduced while protecting the vulnerable?
There is a way to save millions of pounds from the legal aid budget each year without cutting access to vulnerable people: improving UK Border Agency's decision-making on asylum, immigration and asylum support would drastically reduce the number of costly appeals, judicial reviews, and, in the asylum field, fresh claims.
For example, research conducted recently by the Medical Foundation demonstrates that more than 50% of asylum appeals involving asylum seekers with Medical Foundation medico-legal reports are successful. If the government is serious about upholding the rule of law and protecting the most vulnerable, it will look first to make savings from those government departments and agencies, including the UKBA, that place the legal aid budget under unnecessary strain through poor decision-making in matters involving the fundamental rights of highly vulnerable people.