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Faulty legal aid fee system cleaning out quality asylum lawyers: RMJ

`Rewards shortcuts, penalises quality’

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10th June 2010: A `groundbreaking’ new report published by Refugee and Migrant Justice (RMJ) says quality asylum lawyers are being driven out of business by a legal aid payment system that rewards shortcuts and penalises quality.

The report, `Justice at Risk: quality and value for money in asylum legal aid’ is written by academics at the Information Centre for Asylum Seekers and Refugees (ICAR) and City University.

Justice at risk analyses the legal aid payment system introduced by the Legal Services Commission (LSC) under the previous Government. The scheme replaced hourly rates with fixed fees for most cases, and now means practitioners are only paid after cases are closed. The research focuses on asylum but there are wider implications for all legal aid practitioners.

Faced with closure, RMJ has already sought public support; and has asked all those who are concerned about `the future of legal representation for the most vulnerable’ to join the campaign to save it from closure.

Justice at risk argues the funding regime forces legal providers to cut corners in order to make ends meet, and creates financial strain for practitioners committed to quality.
The research shows a clear correlation between time spent, quality of work, and early, cost effective resolution of cases.

But it also exposes the fact that short units of advice, sometimes as little as an hour, are now paid the same fees as the hours of work required to prepare vital evidence such as witness statements. Interviews conducted as part of this research with Home Office decision-makers revealed that witness statements in adult cases are themselves now a rarity. 

Researchers anonymously interviewed 10 firms and charities that provide quality legal services, and many reported financial difficulties.

RMJ Chief Executive Caroline Slocock said: “This research shows the current system is wasteful and is driving out quality providers who gather essential evidence, including witness statements which are now a rarity in adult cases. Those quality providers enable good decisions to be taken on asylum claims at the initial stage and that avoids the need for cases to go to costly appeal.
 
“The new practice of only paying for legal work once cases are resolved is a further flaw. Last week RMJ announced it was facing possible closure – purely as a result of this ill-thought-out policy. Closing the charity would mean more than 10,000 victims of war, torture, intolerance or trafficking will be cast adrift without any legal representation. That includes as many as 900 lone children.
 
“The Ministry of Justice and the Home Office have both announced reviews into legal aid and the asylum system, respectively. We hope they will take note of our research as it proves that by tackling the waste in the current system, the government could free up resources to pay good quality providers fairly and promptly, and would also help to speed up the asylum system.”
 
Bob Nightingale, Chief Executive of the London Legal Support Trust, said: "It is appalling that an organisation so crucial to thousands of people in great need should face closure simply because the Government funding regime fails to pay its bills promptly. Through no fault of the clients or their lawyers, properly undertaken immigration cases can take years to complete. It is wholly unreasonable for the Government to make agencies wait until the end of the case before paying for work done throughout.
 
"The problem has been partly hidden because charities such as the London Legal Support Trust have assisted dozens of advice agencies who have been threatened with closure due to cash flow problems caused by the Government’s funding regime. This cannot continue overall and RMJ cash flow problem is, in any case, certainly too large to be resolved by any charity."
 
Law Society Chief Executive Desmond Hudson said: "In an area of law where there has been a substantial decrease in the number of legal aid providers recent years, the closure of RMJ could have serious consequences for its clients who may struggle to find alternative representation and, for the principle of access to justice irrespective of the means to pay.

"The Law Society calls upon the new government and the LSC to urgently review the payment system to ensure that all providers can rely on being paid promptly for the work they have done, so that the essential legal aid work for vulnerable clients provided by RMJ and other providers is able to continue.”

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