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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 March 2008, 08:07 GMT
Legal aid cuts affect asylum seekers
By Dickon Hooper
BBC News

Fears are being raised that cuts to the Legal Aid service could lead to asylum seekers living and working in England illegally.

Asylum seeker
The government says less service is needed as there are fewer claims

Some Bristol solicitors have given up on immigration work, claiming the lack of investment in Legal Aid means they cannot give a proper service.

This has meant asylum seekers are travelling elsewhere to get representation, while others borrow money from their community to pay for private advice.

Minou Jilali, from the Avon and Bristol Law Centre, said: "Four firms who were doing this work have stopped. It is difficult for them to prepare cases as it costs more than Legal Aid would provide.

"It is hard for Bristol clients to find lawyers, so they go to Cardiff or Newport. This does affect cases and puts pressure on asylum seekers."

It is conceivable that, if people can't get representation they have little option but to act illegally
Derek McConnell, Solicitor

Other Bristol-based asylum seekers, like 25-year-old Haidar from Iran, have solicitors in Birmingham, or London.

"I live with a friend. It is no good. I have no money and no food. Friends help me," he said.

Both the Avon and Bristol Law Centre, and South West Law, two of the most well-known centres helping asylum seekers in the city, have cut their Legal Aid casework.

Derek McConnell, a solicitor at South West Law, said: "If there are less suppliers interested in the work, people will find it harder to get people to represent them.

"It is conceivable that if people can't get representation and have NASS support (help with housing) withdrawn, they have little option but to act illegally."

The Legal Services Commission, which administers Legal Aid, said it was "confident" that people reliant on publicly-funded immigration and asylum legal advice receive the help they need.

"It is important to note the number of asylum claims have fallen and therefore the provision of legal advice mirrors that.

"Fewer people seeking asylum means fewer providers are needed to help them," a spokeswoman said.

But she added that action could be taken if a need was identified.

'Margins of society'

Tony Miles, a solicitor at Bobbets in Bristol, said immigration work was important and needed to be done, even if the renumeration was minimal.

"You are dealing with people on the margins of society," he said.

He also argued that most people would not be affected by the squeeze on Legal Aid - until they wanted to use the service themselves.

"Most people, until they have a problem, are not concerned there's a legal profession who will help those who can't afford it. And then they want it sorted."

However, some people argue it is right the government keeps a watch on its spending.

Andrew Green, of the group Migration Watch, said: "In the last financial year, Legal Aid for asylum and immigration came to 107m, or more than a quarter of a million pounds a day, despite the fall in asylum applications.

"It is right for the government to make sure that such expenditure is strictly controlled."

No-one from the government would comment on the suggestion that the funding squeeze could force asylum seekers to work and live illegally.

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