The justice minister was asked about access to legal advice inside immigration removal centres following the furore over a BBC Panorama investigation into Brook House. Nine G4S employees have been suspended following the broadcasting of the programme on Monday night that revealed shocking levels of violence, abuse and racism in the centre close to Gatwick Airport and run by the controversial private security firm. (Pic: BBC Panorama)
In the first justice questions of the new term, SNP MP Stuart McDonald pointed out that ‘barely a third’ of immigration detainees were aware that they were entitled to 30 minutes of free legal advice on going into detention.
In a question to the justice secretary David Lidington, McDonald asked: ‘Given the horror show in Brook House that we saw on last night’s “Panorama”, will the Government act urgently to ensure that all detainees get access to the free legal aid that they urgently require?’
Lidington replied by saying that legal aid was ‘still available for asylum cases’. The Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 scrapped public funding for general immigration work, including preparing and presenting claims to the Home Office as well as deportation appeals. The minister went on to say: ‘I would certainly hope that appropriate measures are taken in every relevant establishment to bring those rights to the attention of anyone who is detained and might qualify for legal aid.’
In June this year Bail for Immigration Detainees published its latest survey on access to legal advice for people detained under immigration powers. It revealed that just two-thirds of detainees had a legal representative, and one in 10 ‘never had any legal advice while in detention’.
At the end of last month the Ministry of Justice released their latest statistics: 27,819 entered detention last year and less than half of all detainees (48%) returned or else voluntarily departed from the UK on leaving detention.
There were renewed calls this week for the introduction of a 28-day time limit on detention following Panorama. The UK is the only country in the European Union not to have an upper time limit on detention.
According to the latest MoJ statistics, more than one third of detainees had been in detention for 29 days or longer. A significant minority (7%) had been locked up for more than four months, including 172 who had been in detention for over a year and 28 for two years or longer. One detainee had been in custody for 1,514 days.
Commenting on BID’s research, policy manager John Hopgood said that the ‘grim realities’ of the LASPO cuts were ‘clear to see’. ‘The government continues to use detention as an administrative convenience, while denying the people they detain access to even the most basic legal advice,’ he said. ‘Everybody entering detention is entitled to 30 minutes of free legal advice. Yet our research has shown that one in three people in detention are unaware that this service exists. Accessing legal advice is a lottery – barely half of detainees have ever been able to make an appointment. That’s simply unacceptable.’
Levels of representation remained ‘unacceptably low, putting a huge burden on charities like BID to try and fill the gaps’, he said. ‘Nobody in detention – detention of any kind – should be expected to fight their case without access to legal advice.’
‘The government’s detention regime is fundamentally flawed in many ways. By denying potentially thousands of people every year any access to legal advice, the government are saying that access to justice simply doesn’t matter.’
David Lidington was also asked about the timing of the promised LASPO review. ‘I would hope to able to give Parliament details in the relatively near future,’ he replied; adding that he wanted to ‘press ahead as soon as possible’.
The government was also unable to provide a timetable for reimbursing claimants who had to pay unlawful employment tribunal fees following the recent ruling of the Supreme Court against the fees.
The minister Dominic Raab said that the government would reveal plans ‘shortly’. The shadow justice minister Richard Burgon called on the minister to apologise ‘to working people for deliberately and unlawfully blocking their access to justice through employment tribunal fees’. ‘Last week, I received a wholly inadequate reply, Burgon said. ‘Will the Minister apologise today for the suffering that this policy has caused hundreds of thousands of working people?’
Raab conceded that ‘we got the balance wrong’. ‘I am happy to say that I am very sorry for any frustration or deleterious impact that this has caused anyone who has been affected,’ he said. ‘That is why we are acting so quickly to end the charges and to make sure there are practical arrangements for the reimbursement of anyone affected by these fees.’ According to the Law Society’s Gazette Raab has since confirmed that those who were ‘priced out of bringing a claim’ would be able to reapply outside the normal limitation period.
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