UK charity Public Law Project (PLP) announced Monday they have written a letter to Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk claiming he is in breach of his duty to make legal aid available to asylum seekers in England and Wales, which he is obligated to do under s.1 (1) of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. The letter is a prerequisite to judicial review, should PLP and Chalk not reach a resolution.
PLP’s accompanying report, produced in collaboration with Haringey Migrant Support Centre, concludes that “People who require legal aid, and those who provide it, are sinking into an ocean of unmet need.” It found that the current system fails financially, structurally and practically, pointing out that asylum claimants make an average of 16 attempts to access legal aid before obtaining it. “It is no longer accurate to say that the immigration legal aid market is failing: it has failed,” the report says. It’s this failure that they are alleging that the Lord Chancellor is legally responsible for, and his neglecting to resolve it is the topic of the proposed judicial review.
An ensuing statement from PLP Lead Lawyer Daniel Rourke follows:
Across England and Wales, legal aid is failing, In many parts of the country, there are no immigration and asylum legal aid lawyers left. The largest private firms providing legal aid in this area of law do so at a loss. … This type of legal aid helps people escaping trauma, such as persecution, trafficking, and domestic abuse, to present their cases to the Home Office or appeal to the Tribunal. … The Lord Chancellor has a legal duty to ensure that legal aid is made available.
A government spokesperson, in conversation with The Guardian, claimed “The Legal Aid Agency regularly monitors capacity in the legal aid market, taking immediate action if gaps appear, and the Ministry of Justice is reviewing the system to ensure it is sustainable well into the future.”
This stands directly in contrast with the aforementioned PLP report’s section on Parliamentary inquiries, detailing the government’s failure to adequately respond to the 2021 Ministry of Justice internal review’s conclusion that “radical change” and a “complete overhaul of the system was required,” or the similar conclusion of the 2021 Westminster Commission on Legal Aid’s “Inquiry into the sustainability and recovery of the sector” and the 2019 Ministry of Justice’s “Post-Implementation Review of Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.”
Rourke made it clear that ‘PLP has not taken this step lightly’ and has been working on this issue for over a decade. They are now demanding urgent action, and will ‘reluctantly prepare legal proceedings’ if the Lord Chancellor fails to carry out his duties.