Long hours, low pay, and vicarious trauma creating legal aid advice “drought” for vulnerable migrants

Read the report

Legal aid workers in the immigration and asylum sector are being pushed to the brink by a culture of long hours, low pay and overwork that threatens to create a vacuum of support for vulnerable migrants.  

A new report, published by Dr Jo Hynes from Public Law Project and Young Legal Aid Lawyers, highlights government immigration rules have ‘quadrupled in length’ over the past ten years. This has caused long delays in Home Office decision-making, which shackle legal aid workers with ‘heavy, high stakes and emotionally draining’ workloads, and lead many to ‘burn out’ or leave the sector entirely.  

Legal aid spending has been slashed by 43% in real terms since 2004, blocking access to justice for vulnerable migrants who languish in the system for months; waiting for legal aid providers to take them on, while their mental health deteriorates.  

Key findings include:  

  • The majority of legal aid practitioners (73%) experience vicarious trauma or ‘burnout’ and most felt they were always at or beyond their capacity.  
  • More than half (51%) expected to take on more work in the next five years.  
  • Nearly a quarter (19%) planned to leave the sector entirely. 

Dr Jo Hynes, a senior researcher with Public Law Project and report author, said:

“It’s hugely concerning to see legal aid workers forced out at a time when the government is seemingly abandoning its responsibilities to refugees and people seeking asylum.  

“By chronically underfunding the sector, the government is effectively shifting responsibility for a functioning system onto individual workers, making the system contingent on their willingness to work long hours for barely anything in return.  

“It implies that legal aid is a political choice, rather than an essential pillar of our justice system.” 

Legal aid is a human right. For people escaping conflict and oppression, it can mean the difference between living safely in the UK or being sent back to a country where they will face persecution or death. 


We, along with Young Legal Aid Lawyers, are calling for urgent action to ensure that people can access life-saving legal advice, including: 

  • In the short term, the introduction of an emergency 15% fixed fee uplift, paid for by the Ministry of Justice, to address retention across the sector.  
  • In the long term, the development of a clear government strategy to address ‘advice droughts’, and ensure sustainable funding for the future. 

Read the report

Read “My life as a legal aid lawyer – and why I decided to leave” for more on how a sector in crisis impacts the people within it