People who suffered modern slavery face significant barriers to accessing legal aid funded advice and representation in England, despite this being key to their ability to obtain formal support and the stability required to recover, new research has found.
The report, entitled Access to legal advice and representation for survivors of modern slavery, was developed by the University of Liverpool in collaboration with the Anti Trafficking Labour Exploitation Unit (ATLEU) and the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham and was commissioned by the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (the Modern Slavery PEC), a publicly funded body created to transform the effectiveness of laws and policies designed to overcome modern slavery.
The researchers analysed the experience of immigration lawyers and support providers working with people with lived experience of modern slavery in England about their experience of the system providing legal aid, particularly those working at the nexus of the UK immigration system and the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the framework designed to identify and support potential victims of modern slavery in the UK.
The research found that modern slavery survivors’ access to legal aid funded advice is severely hampered, despite evidence strongly pointing to it being key to their recovery, securing their rights, immigration status and protection from re-trafficking.
The research identified a secure immigration status as particularly important for survivors to achieve stability allowing them to make progress towards recovery.
Dr Samantha Currie, from the University of Liverpool’s Law School and Centre for the Study of International Slavery (CSIS), who led the research, said: “People who suffered modern slavery often deal with hugely complex situations, trying to access support, securing the formal status as a victim through the NRM, whilst navigating the NRM processes, immigration law and sometimes criminal cases against people who exploited them. All whilst trying to recover in safety and stability.”
The research identified two key barriers for people who endured modern slavery in accessing good quality legal advice in England.
Firstly, there is a lack of clarity amongst many lawyers and practitioners supporting survivors about what legal aid people referred to the NRM are entitled to receive, especially for immigration related cases.
Secondly, the current funding structure of immigration legal aid discourages lawyers from taking on complex modern slavery cases and seriously limits the time they can spend on the case work. The fixed fees don’t reflect the time legal aid lawyers spend working on them and are insufficient to cover the complex and lengthy work necessary to resolve survivors’ legal issues. Relying on meeting the threshold for “escape fees”, available only when the work carried out on a case exceeds at least three times the value of the fixed fee, is too much of a financial risk for many lawyers to take.
This means that cases involving clients who have survived modern slavery are often financially unviable for lawyers to take on. Those who do may have to limit the time spent on the case, which impacts on the quality of the advice; or work without receiving payment, in their own time and at personal cost.
“The system which should provide people who suffered modern slavery with good quality advice currently fails many of them. We need to put the needs of people who went through modern slavery at the centre and make changes to improve it”, said Dr Currie.
“Trafficking and slavery cases are often complex and can take a long time to resolve. The current legal aid system simply fails to enable lawyers to provide the quality of legal support that survivors need. “, said Victoria Marks, Director of the Anti Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit, a charity specialising in providing legal representation to survivors of trafficking and modern slavery.
“As a result, fewer and fewer lawyers are taking these cases which makes it even harder for vulnerable survivors to navigate our complicated legal systems so that they can access protection and rebuild their lives.” she added.
The research also found that the process of referring people who have endured exploitation into the NRM can be disempowering and disengaging, leaving them not fully understanding that they have been referred into the identification framework and what it entails.
The report urged the Government to change the way legal aid is funded to make sure lawyers have capacity to provide good quality support. A key change would be to switch payments available to lawyers when working on immigration cases involving survivors to an hourly basis. This would ensure that lawyers could be paid appropriately for the work carried out.
Victoria Marks said: “Paying lawyers for their casework on an hourly basis is a clear way to making such cases financially viable.”
The report also recommended that survivors be entitled to receive legally aided advice prior to referral into the NRM, to improve their understanding of the referral and its implications.
Victoria Marks said: “When there are signs of modern slavery it is important that people can access advice, so that they can consider whether they want to enter the NRM and understand the legal processes before they embark on them.”
The report also urged the Government to take steps to ensure people with lived experience of modern slavery with insecure immigration status are protected.
Dr Currie said: “Those without a secure immigration status who are identified as victims of modern slavery through the NRM, should automatically receive a minimum of one year Leave to Remain.
“This would provide survivors with some stability and time to begin to recover in safety.”
Liz Williams, Policy Impact Manager at the Modern Slavery PEC, said: “This evidence shows that we need to put access to legal advice at the centre of any considerations around support for people who experienced modern slavery and provides practical solutions to implement necessary changes.
“We note the Government’s announcement to consider how to improve survivors’ access to legal advice in its New Plan for Immigration. There is much to be done to make sure people who lived through modern slavery can receive good quality representation that they need to recover safely, and we’re hoping to working together to improve access to this.”
To read the full Access to legal advice and representation for survivors of modern slavery report, please visit: www.modernslaverypec.org/assets/downloads/Legal-advice-report.pdf