Families in the UK that open their doors to child relatives fleeing the camps of Calais are being penalised by stringent rules on legal aid.
It was a cold winter day last year and the small waiting room at Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit is cramped as usual with clients waiting to be seen by their lawyers. Among those in the crowded space are two teenage Afghan boys. They stand up when their names are called, and are accompanied by their sister, her husband and the couple’s young child. There is also a smartly dressed white British male in tow.
They all troop through to the interview room. The teenagers arrived recently from a refugee camp in Calais, allowed into the UK because their older sister lives here and is married to a settled British national.
The boys look tired and seem withdrawn. They had met the white British man at swimming classes. He explains he wants to help in whatever way he can to support the children. He says a lot of his friends disapprove, but he doesn’t care.
First appointments with children are usually long. As lawyers, we need to establish if they are eligible for legal aid, what family connections they have in the UK, whether they would be under Social Services care as a looked after child. Usually children would be eligible for free legal advice, however where they have a relative with them, they are considered by the Legal Aid Agency to be an ‘accompanied child’. No one would want a child to go through a long and difficult legal interview on their own if they didn’t have to. However, the support that the boys’ sister and brother in law are giving will come at a great financial cost to them; the teenagers’ eligibility for legal aid will now be assessed on their relatives’ income.
“They’re here; they’re’ safe; no more worry about them being in the camp, with little access to food, heat and shelter. A lot of children are still stuck there and weren’t lucky enough to reach safety. He is grateful, but he looks defeated.”
The brother-in-law is flustered by the intrusive questions about his income. He had recently settled in the UK, he’d bought his flat from the council and asked a pool of friends to help raise the money to buy the flat outright. His wife wants to go to college and they had saved enough for her to study, about £8,500 in total. She has saved this money over quite some time and was all set to begin her course.
Working through the LAA’s Legal Help form is laborious. The family grows weary as they are asked about savings, assets, monthly income and benefits. The brother-in-law works part-time and has a one bedroomed flat. He describes how the boys share the living room floor, along with their clothing and other belongings. He hasn’t brought all of his bank statements with him. His property also needs to be valued by an estate agent to establish its market value. He seems frustrated, but he is making a list as we go through everything. The boys’ heads are down.
A few days later, the brother in law returns with the evidence. It’s bad news. His wife’s college fund puts them above the Legal Help savings limit of £8,000, so they don’t qualify for legal aid.
The teenagers have been given Home Office forms which need to be returned within 20 days of their arrival from Calais. It is already day 15. An extension might be possible, but before any further work can be carried out or interpreters booked, we need all the evidence relating the brother-in-law’s financial circumstances. They leave deflated.
“A few days later, the brother in law returns with the evidence. It’s bad news. His wife’s college fund puts them above the Legal Help savings limit of £8,000, so they don’t qualify for legal aid.”
The brother in law seems bewildered; at the end of his tether. They are not getting any help from social services. His newly enlarged family is surviving on Child Tax Credit, his son’s Child Benefit, and his part-time wages. He is reluctant to dip into his wife’s savings because she wants to study so she can work and earn a decent salary to help support the family.
The initial stage is for the boys to complete the Home Office’s ‘Statement of Evidence Form’ – which asks detailed questions about their family, education, reasons why they fled their home country and how they got to the UK. This is to be accompanied by a detailed statement from each child, completed using an interpreter. To complete the form and statement takes between six to eight hours. Both boys will then have to attend an interview at the Home Office, most likely in Liverpool. Interviews can last up to four hours each. If they were instructing private solicitors, all of this could easily reach £2,000 for each child. Many cases are refused in the first instance, and asylum is only granted after appeal. This would mean instructing counsel to represent them at the hearing, taking further instructions and collating evidence. If that happened, they would be looking at a legal bill for each child of at least £4,000.
He is realising that by taking in the two boys, he and his wife have put their family’s already precarious long-term financial security at risk.
The brother-in-law is too tired now; he wasn’t expecting all of this. He is happy the children have reached the UK safely and he keeps reminding himself that he is grateful for this. They’re here; they’re’ safe; no more worry about them being in the camp, with little access to food, heat and shelter. A lot of children are still stuck there and weren’t lucky enough to reach safety. He is grateful, but he looks defeated.
“He is realising that by taking in the two boys, he and his wife have put their family’s already precarious long-term financial security at risk.”
We know of many others in a similar situation. Having opened their homes to take in young relatives who have fled the camps of Calais, families find they are now being penalised. With no legal aid, they face going into serious debt to pay for privately funded legal advice, or attempting to find their way through the asylum process – on which a child’s future in this country depends – with no expert help.
The risk is that children will be unrepresented, despite having no legal knowledge of their rights, the asylum process, and with little or no English. How will they know what to do? What if they miss something important? How will they advocate in court unrepresented?
These children have already faced a perilous and uncertain journey to reach the UK, but they face another one – filled with legal obstacles – to be able to stay here.
Published on Open Democracy