Last-minute legal claims are being brought by people facing deportation due to the “shambolic” legal advice system in removal centres, lawyers have warned.
The warnings contradict recent claims by the home secretary that “last-minute tactics” are being used by “activist lawyers” to intentionally “delay and disrupt” returns of people without valid cases.
The government is facing a legal challenge over its provision of legal advice to immigration detainees, with claims that the current system forces people to rely on “less than competent” lawyers to represent them.
Under the Detained Duty Advice Scheme (DDAS), the government contracts a number of law firms to attend legal advice surgeries in removal centres across England, during which detainees can receive up to 30 minutes of free legal advice irrespective of financial eligibility.
Detention Action says the scheme is contracting “inexperienced” legal advisors to provide this advice, and that errors made by the lawyers are “often impossible” for individuals to correct before removal from the UK, placing them at risk of facing “irreparable harm”.
Former detainees told The Independent the solicitors they were assigned under the scheme did “nothing” to assist with their case for weeks and it was only when NGOs intervened to put them in touch with an external lawyer that they were able to challenge their removal directions.
One 45-year-old woman, who was recently granted refugees status, said the lawyer she was allocated to when she signed up to the DDAS on being detained in Yarl’s Wood in 2019 did not do anything to assist with her legal case.
The Botswanan national, who fled violent abuse from her family, said: “The second time we had a meeting, he told me that he thought my case was not strong, so I needed to go home.
“I was really afraid of going back home. I stopped eating. I started thinking of killing myself. I was thinking, at any time they could come and pick me up. It really affected my mental health.”
After six weeks – at which point she had been served removal directions – the woman spoke to another detainee who suggested she get in touch with charity Medical Justice, which put her in contact with Duncan Lewis Solicitors which, in turn, took on her case. Her removal was subsequently cancelled.
“I’m so grateful for these two organisations. Before that, I wasn’t getting any help. They need to give more information to detainees. If I hadn’t spoken to that detainee, I wouldn’t have found someone to help me.”
In submissions to the court, Detention Action reports a number of cases of detainees who, after getting little or no help from their DDAS lawyer, eventually secured alternative advice – usually with the help of an NGO – sometimes only days or hours before their scheduled removal.
Bella Sankey, director of Detention Action, said: “Over the last three years, the Lord Chancellor has reduced the legal advice system in detention centres to a shambles, by contracting many inexperienced firms unqualified to give the complex advice required and then leaving them unmonitored.
“The stakes could not be higher, with access to justice being routinely denied to people who face death or torture if wrongly deported. The courts and the good firms that specialise in this difficult work are left to deal with the fallout of these costly failures.”
Rakesh Singh, of the Public Law Project, which is acting for Detention Action in the case, said that while there were some “hardworking” immigration lawyers on the DDAS, many of the law firms awarded contracts in 2018 had “no track record”.
“The problem is that there are firms that are not doing what they have been contracted and paid to do, which has serious consequences for the rest of the system. The Lord Chancellor can take action to make sure that the system works properly, but he has failed to do anything effective about it,” he added.
Detention Action states in its court submissions that law firms have been permitted to continue providing legal advice under the DDAS despite peer reviews having found “serious concerns” in their practice. There are also concerns that some have no qualification or authority to carry out judicial review work – which is often the only legal remedy a detainee has.
Pierre Makhlouf, legal director at Bail for Immigration Detainees, said he was concerned about the “poor quality” of advice that is sometimes provided and the “failure of some advisors to take on cases”.
He said these failings had “left many people in immigration detention unable to receive the essential advice that they need”, adding: “This means people with meritorious cases are being failed by the system, families are being separated and people unjustly deported from the UK.”
A government spokesperson said: “We are committed to ensuring all individuals in immigration removal centres have access to the legal support they need, and they can easily contact their legal representatives by telephone, email and video call.
“All legal providers working under the DDAS are required to have Law Society accreditations and providers are subject to peer review and contract management and we work closely with the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner and will report anyone suspected of providing poor or illegal advice.
“The number of law firms providing specialist assistance has increased and we’re working with a range of bodies to improve the service even further.”