UK: Asylum - cuts in legal aid may jeopardise lives and undermine human rights

The human rights organisation, which has itself submitted a response to the government's Department for Constitutional Affairs, warns that the cuts will result in the closure of reputable legal firms dealing with asylum.

Amnesty International is stressing that the proposed arbitrary time restrictions on legal aid at the initial application stage may often be a 'direct obstacle' to good-quality case preparation, not least as asylum claims often involve complex human rights issues, may require interpretation skills and the seeking of medical reports.

With international human rights law providing for the right to legal assistance in asylum applications, and with the UK government itself committed to the provision of publicly funded legal services as a means of 'promoting social justice', Amnesty International is concerned that legal aid cuts are contrary to the principles of international refugee law as well as domestic human rights commitments.

Amnesty International UK Refugee Affairs Programme Director Jan Shaw said:

'Without a full and fair hearing asylum-seekers' lives may be jeopardised, with people being returned to face the very persecution that they have often risked their lives to flee.

'While Britain often prides itself on its excellent legal system, these cutbacks risk eroding legal protection for asylum-seekers, while also heightening the risk of people being wrongly returned to countries where access to justice is regularly denied - notably countries like Iran, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Somalia and Iraq.

'The government needs to listen to legal practitioners and other experts who are saying that it is just not possible to have a 'one-size-fits-all' legal aid system and also deal with complex asylum cases involving often highly vulnerable people.

'The case of a highly traumatised torture victim, for example, may involve detailed research into an individual's specific background, the checking of claims and medical reports, interpretation, as well as numerous administrative procedures that could easily exceed the government's quite arbitrary five-hour limit.

'You cannot set arbitrary limits to a fair asylum process.'

Although the proposals are framed as an attempt to improve the overall quality of legal provision for asylum-seekers, Amnesty International is concerned that if the proposals go ahead, quality of legal services will in fact be degraded due to a consequent closure of reputable legal firms.

Jan Shaw added:

'If the government presses ahead with these draconian restrictions on legal aid, rather than only clamping down on poor-quality legal practice, the measures will have the effect of driving sorely-needed legal experts out of asylum work.' More about our work on refugees and asylum seekers...

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