The government is being urged to commit to improving access to legal representation for immigrants who have been exploited in the UK after a report warned that the current system was “massively undermining” its claims of being a world-leading in the fight against modern slavery.
Potential modern slavery victims in the UK can be referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), Britain’s framework established to identify and support survivors. More than 10,600 people were referred last year, two-thirds of whom were foreign nationals.
If a person without UK immigration status is recognised as a victim, there are no automatic protections in place to regularise their status, meaning legal advice is often required to do this.
But the report, published by the Modern Slavery Policy and Evidence Centre and carried out by the University of Liverpool, found that legal advice for this cohort was “severely hampered”, despite strong evidence that this is key to securing their immigration status and protecting them from re-trafficking.
Survivors of trafficking are automatically considered for discretionary leave to remain by the Home Office, but data obtained by the Scottish Refugee Council via a freedom of information request shows that between 2017 and 2020, only 9 per cent of non-UK nationals identified as victims were granted discretionary leave.
The report, based on interviews with immigration lawyers and support providers working with survivors in England, found there was a lack of clarity among them about what legal aid people referred to the NRM - and victims who have not yet been referred to the NRM - are entitled to receive, particularly for immigration related cases.
The current funding structure of immigration legal aid does not reflect the time legal aid lawyers spend working on them and is “insufficient” to cover the “complex and lengthy” work necessary to resolve survivors’ legal issues, the report states.
This discourages lawyers from taking on modern slavery cases, and means those who do may have to limit the time spent on each case or work without receiving payment in their own time and at personal cost, according to the research.
Dr Samantha Currie from the University of Liverpool, who led the research, told The Independent: “Without legal representation it is very difficult to see how survivors will gain any security of immigration status.
“The security of immigration status is the crucial foundation for anything beyond that in terms of moving towards recovery. Immigration status is the first step.”
In light of the findings, ministers are being urged to change the way legal aid is funded to make sure lawyers have capacity to provide good quality support, and to ensure modern slavery survivors are entitled to receive legal advice prior to referral to the NRM.
The report notes that a key change would be to switch payments to lawyers for their work on immigration cases involving survivors to an hourly basis.
Victoria Marks, director of the Anti Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit (ATLEU), which contributed to the research, said: “The legal aid system is not sustainable for lawyers to provide good quality legal support for survivors. Big chunks of work on these cases have to be provided on an essentially unpaid basis.
“Paying lawyers hourly is a clear way to make sure that people who have been through experience of modern slavery can receive good legal support that’s so important for them.”
She added: “The claims that the UK is world-leading in the fight against modern slavery are massively undermined if you don’t ensure that survivors of trafficking and slavery’s rights aren’t at the centre of the response.”
The report also calls for a minimum of one year Leave to Remain to be granted automatically to individuals who are identified as victims by the Home Office and do not have secure immigration status, in order to provide them with some “stability and time to recover in safety”.
A government spokesperson said modern slavery victims were eligible for legal aid for immigration applications and were able to access support and legal aid funding once they receive formal victim status from the NRM.
They added: “Legal aid is and will continue to be available for victims of modern slavery or human trafficking. We are looking at the sustainability of the civil legal aid market, including the way fees are paid.”
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