Asylum-seekers left without legal advice as Government faces demand to pay up

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of asylum seekers protested outside the Ministry of Justice yesterday after the UK’s leading provider of legal advice to refugees was driven into administration.

Refugee and Migrant Justice (RMJ) closed its doors because, it says, delays in legal aid payments being made to it by the government left it with too little cash to settle its bills. It has been given until next Wednesday to find the money or to be closed for good.

Going into administration has left an estimated 13,000 asylum seekers and other vulnerable individuals at risk of being left without legal representation, 900 of whom are children who arrived in the UK unaccompanied.

Until 2007 RMJ received payment for its work on an ongoing basis, but government reforms mean that since then they receive payment only when a case is closed. Owing to the highly complex nature of the asylum and immigration cases in which RMJ specialise, that payment can take years to arrive.

“It is a cash flow problem,” said its chief executive Caroline Slocock. “The issue that caused it was one of late payment, by the government to us. We had enough income on paper, but we weren’t being paid promptly enough.”

She added: “The administrators are expecting us to vacate all our premises by the 23rd June. If a solution is to be found to save the organisation it would need to be done within a week. The government needs to be part of that solution.”

Ken Livingstone, the former Mayor of London, addressed the protestors outside the ministry in a show of support for the RMJ. He told The Independent afterwards: “For 20 years governments have made it more and more difficult for refugees to stay in this country. The conditions they are forced to live in have become worse and worse and are now a disgrace.

“They aren’t closing RMJ because of some strange payment decision. They are doing it because they want to close RMJ down to send a message to the world ‘You are not welcome here’.”

Staff at RMJ are desperately worried in the absence of the organisation’s support about the welfare of their clients, several of whom face asylum hearings within weeks. Many now face being left without legal representation.

Ibne Aziz is among those who have been helped by the RMJ, having been forced to leave his family in South Asia after his home life was thrown into upheaval by military action, though he is reluctant to talk publically about where he fled from.

When he arrived in the UK 18 months ago he faced being deported almost immediately but the RMJ agreed to represent him and until the case is finalised he has been able to remain in the country.

He said other people he knows haven’t been so lucky: “I have a friend who came recently whose case was very similar to mine. He went to see a solicitor who said he didn’t have a case. he went to see another who said the same. Now he is returning to Bangladesh. these are cases that can only properly be represented by a charity and there are otners like him.”

Farid, an Iraqi doctor who came to the UK two years ago after being threatened, kidnapped and tortured as punishment for his high-profile work with coalition forces, and who now undertakes voluntary work with asylum seekers after his own case was successfully managed by RMJ, was among the protestors.

He said: “The people I work with, I would not know where to send them for legal advice. There are other immigration and asylum lawyers yes, and other practices who take up this kind of work, but to lose the leading provider will make things much more difficult.”

Justice Secretary Kenneth Clark told the House of Commons after being asked about the closure: “The system introduced three years ago by the last Government is already being successfully used by the vast majority of not-for-profit organisations in this area of law. As other organisations have successfully made the transition, it is only reasonable to expect Refugee and Migrant Justice to do the same.”

RMJ say they are more exposed than comparable organisations as these particular type of cases constitute the entirety of the work they do.

A 2009 report by the Ministry of Justice stated: “The payment system is causing cash flow problems for providers with case loads of lengthy cases. The arrangements do not appear to have been effective.”

Julie Bishop, head of the Law Centres Federation, who provide legal services for vulnerable people said. “The Ministry of Justice have acknowledged the problems RMJ and others, to a lesser extent, face. They had previously been trying to find a way to alleviate the difficulties. That’s why everyone is so shocked.

“If the RMJ does completely fold there will be a process of finding other people to take up the vast number of cases they manage. There are lots of immigration advisers around the country who will step in and do that. But the expertise will be lost, and lots of vulnerable people may find themselves with outcomes they might not have received had the RMJ still existed.

“What’s needed is urgent reform of the system.”