Editorial: ‘This morning what did you wake up to?’
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Marc Bloomfield
Description: Immigration
That is the question that the Archbishop of Canterbury posed to the congregation in his Easter sermon. He focused on the cost of living crisis, the war in Ukraine and the government’s decision to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda:
In the UK, we might be waking up to lighter mornings and warmer days, but families across the country are waking up to cold homes and empty stomachs as we face the greatest cost of living crisis we have known in our lifetimes. And because of this they wake up with fear. Further afield, people are waking up to horrors they never imagined possible.
The Archbishop didn’t hold back when he stated that the decision to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda is ‘subcontracting out our responsibilities’. He is right. The government has also subcontracted out its responsibility to ensure that people don’t go hungry to foodbanks and to those without a home to homelessness charities. I could go on. The cost of implementing the Rwanda plan will be £120m, but we are told that doesn’t include additional costs for housing, food and travel. I am absolutely sure there won’t have been any thought given to the provision of legal representation.
The government’s Rwanda decision raises serious ethical questions but it is not the first time there have been attempts to send asylum-seekers abroad. In 2020, Priti Patel considered processing asylum-seekers on Ascension Island and St Helena, isolated British territories. We are told the home secretary has looked to countries like Australia, which process asylum applications while keeping asylum-seekers on overseas islands.1See, for example, George Parker et al, ‘Priti Patel looked at shipping UK asylum seekers to south Atlantic’, Financial Times, 29 September 2020.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), since 19 July 2013, the Australian government has transferred more than 3,000 asylum-seekers to offshore processing camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.2Australia: 8 years of abusive offshore asylum processing’, HRW, 15 July 2021. Those targeted for offshore processing are asylum-seekers trying to reach Australia by boat. Sophie McNeill, Australia researcher at HRW, has said: ‘Australia’s abusive offshore processing policy has caused immeasurable suffering for thousands of vulnerable asylum-seekers. The cruelty of these camps, in which seven people have committed suicide and children have been terribly traumatised, should not be replicated elsewhere.’
While I wouldn’t want the UK to replicate Australia’s offshore asylum processing, it is innovative – in a good way – with its legal aid policy. Legal Aid New South Wales has been developing its services in response to client need, putting the client at the heart of the service: having them tell their story once, to real people, at the right place first time (see page 12).
Legal aid no longer works in the UK. It needs to be considered as an area of policy and practice that links with others, particularly poverty and health. We need holistic legal advice and holistic defence. People have a mix of legal and non-legal problems that are clustered together. The legal aid silos we currently have don’t work to resolve these legal and non-legal issues.
The 2019 World Bank/IBA report, A tool for justice: the cost benefit analysis of legal aid, argued that failing to provide adequate legal aid did not save money, but simply shifted the financial burden to other areas of government spending such as healthcare, housing, child protection and imprisonment. Four years ago, the Justice Alliance and Speak up for Justice held a Vigil for Justice outside the MoJ3May 2018 Legal Action 6. and commissioned a series of short videos to show the impact of the cuts. Telling stories of legal aid and its power to change lives is important.
Celebrating legal aid lawyers is also important, and this month we do just that in our 50th anniversary article (see page 12). As I write, the deadline closes for the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards nominations, now in their 20th year (see page 18). Well done to all the winners over those 20 years – sometimes you have transformed your clients’ lives, but mostly you have just listened and walked alongside them.
I can’t end without mentioning Nathaniel Mathews, one of the early recipients of a LALY award, who sadly passed away in April (see his obituary at page 7). Knowing Nat, it was easy to see why he won the award: he was passionate, committed and tenacious. He understood the power of storytelling to bring his cases to life – to get others to see what we see. At the 2017 Law Centres Network conference in Glasgow, he told the story of the dispute between two local authorities over housing his client and her daughter. They had been living in a car, parked on a street that crossed both authorities’ boundaries and neither one wanted to accept responsibility. He was an exceptional legal aid lawyer and social justice warrior. He will be hugely missed.
 
1     See, for example, George Parker et al, ‘Priti Patel looked at shipping UK asylum seekers to south Atlantic’, Financial Times, 29 September 2020. »
2     Australia: 8 years of abusive offshore asylum processing’, HRW, 15 July 2021. »
3     May 2018 Legal Action 6. »

About the author(s)

Description: Sue James - author
Sue James is CEO of LAG. She was previously director and housing solicitor at Hammersmith & Fulham Law Centre and a founding trustee at Ealing Law...