Legal aid clients left in limbo after payment changes

Family receiving legal aid Vulnerable people needing legal aid are finding it hard to find representation

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Hundreds of lawyers no longer advise vulnerable clients as changes in legal aid payments have forced many to abandon the work, the BBC has learned.

The Legal Services Commission (LSC) administers the £2bn legal aid budget for England and Wales.

But it now only pays for immigration and asylum work at the end of a case instead of through interim payments.

Complicated cases can take many years to settle and abandoned clients have been struggling to find representation.

BBC Radio 4's Face the Facts programme also found a number of bogus advisers have been taking advantage of those needing help.

Alison Harvey of the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association, said the delay in payments is causing many of its members to give up legal aid work.

"When they go to their bank and ask for a loan because they may not get paid for the work they did last month, and the month before, for the next three years, people are amazed."

One asylum seeker Osman Rasul, killed himself after his legal representatives, Refugee and Migrant Justice (RMJ), went into administration. His friends believe it was the last straw, after protracted attempts to get refugee status in the UK.

Start Quote

It's an area that can attract people who will feast on the vulnerable. It attracts the fraudster and the charlatan”

End Quote Suzanne McCarthy Immigration Services commissioner

RMJ was one of the UK's biggest organisations specialising in immigration and asylum legal advice, and represented around 10,000 people.

It blamed its demise on the changes to the way legal aid was paid. RMJ said it was due around £800,000 of legal aid fees from the LSC.

Mr Rasul, a Kurdish asylum seeker, moved to the UK after his brother and father were killed in Iraq.

"Osman was a kind and respectful man," said Corin Faife, who shared a house with Mr Rasul.

"We had this fantasy that he would be able to get through this and make a life for himself. But it all became too much for him."

A UK Border Agency spokesperson said the agency was working closely with Nottinghamshire Police while the death was investigated.

Work has begun to find new legal representation for RMJ's clients.

The Legal Services Commission said it was working with administrators to confirm whether RMJ was owed overdue payments and to check what was owed to the commission.

Bogus lawyers

RMJ has said that it feared people who cannot find a legitimate adviser may end up in the hands of bogus lawyers.

Solicitor Richard Bartram said: "People will be conned. That is what happens when you don't have competent and reputable advisers. The sharks circle."

Ugandan social worker Stephen Ssentongo came to the UK after his brother, a political activist, was tortured and killed.

He paid £2,000 to a solicitor, John Pascal Ezea, to process his application for asylum. But it turned out his papers were fake and he and his family were detained.

"As far as detention is concerned, it's a pure prison. They treat asylum seekers as criminals," Mr Ssentongo said.

Start Quote

Fixed fees can create an incentive to do the cheapest, shabbiest job possible”

End Quote Desmond Hudson Law Society chief executive

Ezea's firm was shut down, but Mr Ssentongo has had to start his application process from scratch and is still waiting to hear the outcome.

Immigration Services commissioner Suzanne McCarthy, who is responsible for regulating thousands of people working in the sector, warned that while the majority of advisers were committed and above board, there would always be people working under the radar.

"It's an area that can attract people who will feast on the vulnerable. It attracts the fraudster and the charlatan," she said.

Her concerns were shared by Sian Evans of the charity Women Against Rape.

She said: "A number of firms dropped out of doing this work when the new rules were brought in because they said there's just no way we can do justice.

"The problem is, people go on having asylum claims and there is an ever-shrinking pool of committed and good lawyers ready to do the work."

But it is not just the unregulated sector that is causing concern among the professionals.

Further changes brought in by the LSC mean that lawyers and other legal advisers can now generally only claim a "fixed fee" for each case rather than claiming for all the hours they have done.

Desmond Hudson, chief executive of the Law Society said: "The least amount of time one can expend on a case will maximise profit or minimise loss.

"Therefore fixed fees can create an incentive to do the cheapest, shabbiest job possible."

'Quality service'

Simon Hughes, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats and a former human rights lawyer, said the taxpayer was also being affected.

"There's been a very high success rate on asylum appeals in the recent past partly because people haven't been properly represented.

"They can be advised to fight a case or stay in this country when it's a hopeless case. In the end the taxpayer, through the imprisoning, detention costs and deportation costs ends up paying more, not paying less."

The LSC maintained it was committed to ensuring "a good quality service".

It said: "A change from payment, from hours worked to fixed fees, does not alter that. A predictable payment encourages a focus on the work required and encourages efficiency.

"The majority of providers do have sustainable and profitable businesses within the existing fee structures."

Listen to Face the Facts on BBC Radio 4 at 1230 BST, on Thursday, 5 August, repeated at 2100 BST on Sunday, 8 August, or on BBC iPlayer.

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