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Modern Slavery Victims and Legal Aid

Posted on Wednesday, July 11th, 2018

Ben Cartwright discusses the importance of legal aid for victims of modern slavery.

It has never been clear who can access legal aid; to anyone except lawyers and those working in the legal aid sector, trying to obtain free legal advice and support can be fiendishly difficulty. This is even more so since the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012, which vastly limited access to free legal advice, especially in fields such as criminal law and immigration law. Since 2012, most immigration appeals would be denied legal aid under the Act. However, cases of trafficking and other human rights-type cases were supposed to be exempt from these cuts.

“trying to obtain free legal advice and support can be fiendishly difficulty”

Modern slavery has been at the centre of Prime Minister Theresa May’s social policy agenda since she decreed it as the “great human rights issue of our time”; you would therefore expect legal support to those trafficked and abused to be obvious, and easy to obtain. Until May this year, the reality has been disappointing. On the one hand, government rhetoric has increasingly focussed on helping slavery victims, and the Home Office’s own leaflets have asserted that modern slavery victims are entitled to legal aid. However, at the same time, the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) – the body which actually provides legal aid to people – had been denying legal aid applications from victims of human trafficking, BuzzFeed reported.

In a challenge to this policy in May 2018, the LAA has since been forced to admit that it was wrong to deny legal aid to modern slavery survivors wishing to stay in Britain from their immigration claims. In LL v Lord Chancellor, a legal challenge brought by the Anti Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit (ATLEU) on behalf of a woman (LL) who was taken to Britain as a child and sexually abused, it was agreed that trafficking victims do indeed have the right to free legal assistance.

“how many victims had their claim to stay in the UK denied because of an unacceptable bureaucratic mix-up meaning that they could not access a lawyer?”

Whilst the result of the case is to be welcomed, it can only be regretted that the case was needed in the first place. Had the LAA followed the law as established in LASPO and emphasised (at least in rhetorical terms) by the Government, there would have been no such error in granting legal aid to victims of trafficking. How many victims had their claim to stay in the UK denied because of an unacceptable bureaucratic mix-up meaning that they could not access a lawyer?

Unfortunately, the LAA has not released this data. Without a lawyer, modern slavery victims simply cannot put their case effectively to the court; as well as the likely language difficulties for those in the immigration tribunals, they simply do not know the relevant law at issue.

“without a lawyer, modern slavery victims simply cannot put their case effectively to the court”

The most recent statistics available suggest that 12% of all victims of modern slavery were granted discretionary leave to remain – and that data comes from 2015, three years before the law was clarified in May this year. It is reasonable – and hugely disappointing – to assume that had there not been such a flawed policy operated by the LAA, the percentage of victims allowed to remain in the UK would have been higher.

Leave to remain and victim support

Granting victims of modern slavery “leave to remain” in the UK is often an essential element of ensuring their effective reintegration to society. If you are likely to be allowed to remain in the UK upon being identified as a victim of modern slavery, you are more likely to come forward and make the authorities aware of your situation. Additionally, having suffered at the hands of slaveholders, most likely from your country of origin, for anything from weeks to years, the last thing you would want is to be deported back to your country of origin and risk further abuse.

“if you are likely to be allowed to remain in the UK upon being identified as a victim of modern slavery, you are more likely to come forward and make the authorities aware of your situation”

The right to remain in the UK is therefore an essential tool to assist victims of modern slavery; it is imperative that more than 12% of victims secure leave to remain. The Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill, which I have discussed here, is currently meandering through Parliament. If it passes, it will secure victims of modern slavery leave to remain for “as long as necessary” for the providing of twelve months of assistance and support.

“it is imperative that more than 12% of victims secure leave to remain”

The right to legal aid and leave to remain in the UK aren’t luxuries which must be paid for; slavery victims simply do not have the resources to do so. Rather, they are essential legal tools, necessary to support victims in the most effective ways. Once you get support and your legal position in the UK is more secure, you can start to rebuild your life.

Ben Cartwright is a member of the René Cassin Modern Slavery Campaign Group. He is a Law with Hispanic Law student at University College London. Having worked on campaigns with Amnesty International, UNICEF and Anti-Slavery International, he is keen to promote awareness of human rights issues in the UK, and shares René Cassin’s vision of a world where everyone’s rights are protected. His particular interests lie in the legal aspects of modern slavery, and how traffickers exploit legal loopholes in the UK to continue to violate human rights. In his spare time he enjoys hiking, reading and attempting to cook.