Public Law Project has taken the first step in bringing legal proceedings against the Lord Chancellor, Alex Chalk KC, arguing that he is in breach of his constitutional duty to make legal aid available for immigration and asylum issues.  

Explore our report written with Haringey Migrant Support Centre: ‘An Ocean of Unmet Need’

In a pre-action letter for judicial review, PLP claims that access to legal aid for immigration and asylum is now so poor that many people are being denied access to justice, which it is the Lord Chancellor’s duty to uphold.

Bringing together all of our evidence on the extent of the legal aid crisis for the first time, our accompanying research report written with Haringey Migrant Support Centre, ‘An Ocean of Unmet Need,’ presents first-hand stories of people unable to access justice and a roadmap on what the Ministry of Justice must do to build a more sustainable sector.

The research shows that:

  • The South West region has immigration and asylum legal aid capacity for under 300 people per year – fewer than the number of people the Bibby Stockholm barge in Dorset is set to accommodate.
  • In the South West, where 6 providers had recently either stopped trading or stopped providing legal aid, 4,827 asylum seekers had been dispersed to accommodation as of June 2023, including unaccompanied children.
  • Across England and Wales, charities supporting refugees and asylum seekers make on average 16 attempts before securing a legal aid lawyer.
  • In London, which has the highest number of providers, a refugee charity was able to successfully refer clients in only 4.1% of 864 attempts.
  • Two of the largest legal aid providers in London do immigration and asylum work at a loss.
  • In the North West, the largest provider is subsidising legal aid through £285,000 of grant funding and has closed its waiting lists to new enquiries. 

PLP Lead Lawyer Daniel Rourke said: 

“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. They are subsidising the taxpayer and cannot increase their capacity.  

“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. This area of law is so complex that it is a crime for unregulated people to give advice. The Lord Chancellor has a legal duty to ensure that legal aid is made available.  

“Without legal advice, people may struggle to make sense of, let alone meet, Home Office or Court deadlines, or understand how to obtain or present independent evidence that supports their case. Our immigration system needs legal aid to ensure that fair decisions are made. Without it, the Home Office and Tribunal risk making decisions that condemn people to persecution abroad, or destitution in the UK due to ‘hostile environment’ measures.  

Our research report, ‘An Ocean of Unmet Need,’ compiles the latest available figures on immigration and asylum legal aid, and includes new data and qualitative research from legal aid providers like Haringey Migrant Support Centre. It shows that dwindling capacity is vastly outweighed by increased demand resulting from Home Office decisions, especially as providers shut down across the country.

The lack of provision cannot be addressed by asylum seekers travelling to a provider in a different area or seeking advice remotely. There is no spare capacity in any other part of England and Wales. Ultimately providers are left struggling to remain afloat financially, while individuals in need of legal aid find themselves adrift in an ocean of unmet need.

PLP Lead Lawyer Daniel Rourke said:

“Our report shows that the provision of legal aid is shrinking as the demand for legal aid is growing. There are no plans on the horizon that will change either of those trends. For over a decade, PLP has attempted to persuade the Ministry of Justice to make the legal aid scheme accessible to those who need it and sustainable enough for legal practitioners to provide it. PLP has not taken this step lightly. 

“We recognise that the current Lord Chancellor is a former legal aid lawyer and has expressed a commitment to access to justice. We will continue to engage with the ongoing Review of Civil Legal Aid, but it will not conclude until 2024 at the earliest and no urgent steps have been taken to stop provision collapsing further in the meantime.  

“Neither the Legal Aid Agency nor Ministry of Justice collect data on the scale of unmet need for legal aid. Our research shows the unmet need is vast. We are compelled to bring our research to the Lord Chancellor’s attention and demand that he takes urgent action. We will reluctantly prepare legal proceedings if he continues to breach his statutory and constitutional duties.” 

Read the pre-action letter that we sent to the Lord Chancellor.

Explore our full report, ‘An Ocean of Unmet Need,’ or the accompanying explainer, ‘Adrift: An Explainer for Navigating the Immigration Legal Aid Framework.