Trafficking survivor challenges free advice gap

Theresa May vowed to defeat the ‘evil’ of modern slavery but is leaving victims of slavery without access to legal help and support

Yesterday the High Court granted permission in a judicial review case brought by a victim of modern slavery who is being denied access to legal advice by the government.  

ATLEU is representing the Claimant, a young woman who was subjected to sexual exploitation as a child in UK. The government has identified her as a potential victim of trafficking but have refused her legal aid for immigration advice. Without this vital legal advice to help her apply for temporary leave to stay in the country, she faces potentially grave consequences. She will not be able to recover from her traumatic trafficking experiences and may face removal, or even re-trafficking or re-exploitation.

Parliament passed law which came into force on 1 April 2013 (the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012), which states that legal aid should be provided to victims of trafficking who need immigration advice about applications for leave to enter or remain, where they have been found to be possible or confirmed victims of trafficking. Against the will of Parliament the Government is now denying help to victims of trafficking and slavery.

For the past four years the government has obeyed the law and provided legal assistance to victims of trafficking like our client. Now they have changed their minds and have reinterpreted what the law should cover.

The government’s u-turn leaves victims of trafficking and slavery without legal aid to help them explain what has happened to them even when this will help them to obtain temporary leave to remain in the UK. The government says that the Home Office will “automatically” consider a victim for discretionary leave where they are found to be a victim and so are arguing that this should not be considered to be a formal “application”. They say that vulnerable clients like ours don’t need the help of a lawyer.  

Why victims need free advice

In our experience victims of slavery need legal help to explain what has happened to them so that they are formally identified by the government and are granted temporary leave to remain in the UK. Without this essential help victims are unable to put their case effectively in order to obtain a grant of leave. For most victims this is a life-changing decision. Without being identified as a victim and granted leave most victims cannot escape a life of abuse and exploitation and are denied the chance to recover. Vulnerable children, women and men are left in limbo with no access to housing or benefits and no way of supporting themselves. It is only with legal status that a victim has the stability to focus on a course of therapy or to hold their traffickers to account. The government’s decision to deny these victims legal help will mean traffickers get off scot free.

Immigration advice can only be given by properly regulated advisors. If it is given by someone who does not have the proper qualification or regulation that person commits a criminal offence. It is not an easy process to get leave to remain and needs good arguments and evidence to be put forward to explain why someone meets legal criteria. The statistics bear this out: in 2015, only 12% of all victims were given discretionary leave.  Now victims will go without legal advice, it is likely that total will fall even lower.

The consequence of denying funding to victims at an early stage is failures in protection for victims, with all the distress that this will cause. The public purse will also pick up the tab later on, with legally aided challenges to poor decision making for victims who did not have good advice about their cases to ensure the right decisions were made first time. 

What ATLEU says

Carita Thomas, the solicitor dealing with this case, said:

“This is an access to justice issue. Every survivor of trafficking should know what their rights are and if they have arguments to stay here, have help to put their case at its highest to the state. What are the provisions about immigration legal aid for trafficking victims meant to cover if it is not to help them in the identification stage? Every statement from the government about a commitment to modern slavery rings hollow if they are prepared to abandon victims at their most vulnerable point when they most need advice on their legal rights. They are putting them at risk of a lifetime of further abuse and exploitation.” 

What next

Our client’s case will now proceed to a full hearing where the matter will be considered in full. The Lord Chancellor has still not released a public statement explaining the change in the government’s position to all the people who are trying to help victims and victims themselves. We ask the Government to reconsider their position and obey the law.


Further information:

Please contact Marsha Lowe with any queries on this story:

The barrister representing our client is Catherine Meredith, assisted by Zoe Harper, of Doughty Street Chambers.

We have reported on this case in Legal Voice.