LAWS goes to the heart of our work
Following the announcement this week that our Senior Legal Advisor Rosalyn Akar Grams has been shortlisted for the Law Society’s Human Rights Lawyer of the Year award, we take a look at the Legal Advice and Welfare team which she runs, known as LAWS.
LAWS was established in recognition of the UN Committee against Torture’s affirmation that rehabilitation should be holistic and include legal services. It assists our clients to secure access to justice and status in the UK by finding and working collaboratively with lawyers and building their capacity to represent survivors of torture, including by offering training. All this at a time of huge pressure on legal aid and welfare services.
The UK’s asylum system can be a labyrinthine one. Kolbassia Haoussou, Co-ordinator of Survivors Speak OUT, explains:
Contrary to common perception, gaining asylum is not a matter of telling a sob-story to a credulous civil servant. The process involves a huge amount of complex form filling, numerous appointments with lawyers and case workers, and appearances before immigration tribunals.
And this process can continue for months and years, all the while with survivors living in fear that they will be detained or deported.
LAWS provides the vital support to assist torture survivors to understand and navigate the system. LAWS helps them find legal representatives (usually a solicitor) to take on their case and to prepare the evidence needed. Some applicants have been badly advised by incompetent or inexperienced solicitors, while the steady winnowing of legal aid practitioners means that some areas have been described as “legal aid deserts”.
Rosalyn Akar Grams (‘Ros’) has been the Senior Legal Adviser and team manager at LAWS since 2014. She and her small team of legal and welfare experts act with tenacity and determination to secure a fair hearing for torture survivors seeking asylum in the UK, including working for the release of people detained in Immigration Removal Centres (IRC) and preventing removals.
LAWS is frequently faced with very difficult cases and has helped clients with no lawyer to navigate the complex and confusing asylum system. These clients often have severe mental health problems, and face removal to the countries where they were tortured if their case for asylum is rejected. Through Ros’s determination and dedication, LAWS have prevented removals and worked tirelessly to secure a safer future for asylum seekers.
A recent case highlights her work’s impact: it involved a Nigerian client, whose right to appeal through the asylum system had been exhausted, wasn't represented by a lawyer, and was facing imminent removal to Nigeria. The client had physical evidence of torture, which had never been documented.
In the absence of a legal representative, LAWS assisted the client to make representations directly to the Home Office, which at the last minute were successful in preventing the client's removal.
Even legal professionals can find the asylum system baffling. LAWS has developed a training programme to help lawyers to develop best practice on how to work with vulnerable clients and how to understand and deal with the emotional impact of this kind of work on themselves.
Over the years referrals to LAWS have increased dramatically, rising from 353 in 2012 to 1,022 in 2016. This is a reflection of therapists' and clients' increased awareness and appreciation of its value as well as the increasingly higher bar set when proving torture.
The LAWS team work alongside and learn from torture survivors. Kolbassia Haoussou says:
Survivors of torture have many steps on the road to rehabilitation. The first is securing legal protection, so LAWS work goes to its heart. Ros and her team give survivors an opportunity for a new life.