Even if you have a lawyer, it’s important to understand your own legal case – this is your case and your life and you need to keep track of what is happening and whether your lawyer is doing the things they should be.
Know your rights at different stages of the system, and know what the options are for the stage you are at. Knowing what could come next will help you prepare. Take an active role in your legal case.
This page looks at the different types of lawyers there are, how legal aid works, alternatives to legal aid lawyers, finding a lawyer, communicating with your lawyer, making a complaint against your lawyer, and how friends or supporters can provide legal support (not legal advice).
What is a lawyer?
In the UK, the term lawyer can be used for anyone qualified to give legal advice, which could include a caseworker, solicitor or barrister.
The lawyer you will have most contact with may be a caseworker who has qualified under the body that regulates immigration legal advice; or a lawyer who has formally qualified as a “solicitor”. In immigration/asylum cases, it is normally a different kind of lawyer called a “barrister” who will represent you in court. They are also called “counsel”. In Scotland, they are called “advocates”.
Legal aid helps people with no or little income to pay for the cost of getting legal advice. The government allocates funds for this purpose, and the legal aid fees are paid directly to the legal advice provider.
In the UK, legal aid is available for asylum claims, but is no longer available in England and Wales for legal advice or representation in non-asylum immigration matters. In terms of legal aid, an “asylum claim” also includes humanitarian protection claims (on the basis of a real risk of serious harm/indiscriminate violence) and claims based on Article 2 and Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Rights under the European Convention on Human Rights are not affected by Brexit.
From 25 October 2019, legal aid has been re-instated for separated children’s immigration and citizenship cases. Read more here.
Legal aid is still available for non-asylum immigration cases in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
This means that if your immigration case is not an asylum case and you are in England or Wales, you generally cannot get legal aid advice or representation.
You can no longer get legal aid, for example, for:
- family migration cases, including family reunification applications under the Refugee Convention
- advice about student visas
- advice about visitor visas
- challenging a deportation, if your case does not have an asylum or Article 3 (of the European Convention on Human Rights) element
- Article 8 cases – the right to family and private life.
Exceptions in England and Wales
There are some non-asylum immigration cases that may still be eligible for legal aid: certain cases where there has been domestic violence; cases involving the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC); and certain immigration applications made by victims of trafficking.
You can also apply for exceptional legal aid funding if you believe your human rights would be breached if you do not have legal aid. The Public Law Project provides information and assistance in some cases.
Legal aid for detention issues
There is still legal aid available for challenging immigration detention – for bail (including challenges to conditions applied on release) and challenging unlawful detention. People in detention in England and Wales cannot usually get legal aid, however, for their substantive immigration cases (non-asylum) if they are being represented by a lawyer based in England or Wales.
If you are detained in Scotland or Northern Ireland you are likely to be moved to a detention centre in England prior to removal/deportation, with greatly reduced – and more restricted – legal aid provision.
Legal aid for asylum support
In asylum support cases, legal aid for challenging a refusal of support is only available in cases where both accommodation and subsistence are applied for. If you apply for asylum support and do not apply for accommodation (because you can live with someone else and do not want to be forced to move anywhere in the UK under their “no choice” policy), you will not get legal aid to challenge a refusal to give you support.
Legal aid for judicial review
Recent cuts mean it is now much more difficult to get legal aid for a judicial review.
If a court or tribunal has considered the same – or substantially the same – issue within the last 12 months, and you lost the case, legal aid for a judicial review will not usually be available.
The government has brought in measures in England and Wales that mean, in general, legal aid lawyers only get funding for working on a judicial review if permission to proceed with that judicial review is granted. The Legal Aid Agency can allow legal aid for work done before permission is granted for a judicial review, but this is very hard to get. If you want to find out more, read this Legal Aid Handbook summary.
This means that legal aid lawyers taking on a judicial review are taking a risk, and are only likely to do this if they feel you have a strong case. The lawyer can receive legal aid funding for the work done pre-permission stage if permission is subsequently granted, but if permission is refused that work will remain unpaid.
Legal aid: time-limited and merits tested
Even if legal aid is available for your case, the amount of time the lawyer can spend on your case is limited. There are lots of things that, ideally, a legal aid lawyer could do on your case but legal aid funding doesn’t cover it. This includes attending your asylum interview if you are an adult, or legal research if a case is likely to be seen as straightforward.
Legal aid lawyers also have to conduct a “merits test” on your case (as well as finding out whether you are financially eligible). At the start of the asylum process, the merits test is easy to pass. A lawyer is only likely to say an asylum case, at the pre-decision stage, fails a merits tests if it is “clearly hopeless” or would be “an abuse of process”. After a refusal of an asylum claim, the merits test is more difficult. In order to determine whether a legal aid lawyer can take on a case for appeal, they have to believe that it would have over 50% chance of succeeding.
Law firms that have legal aid contracts are also limited in the number of “matter starts” they are given – they cannot take on unlimited clients, or unlimited issues in clients’ cases.
Alternatives to legal aid
If you cannot get a legal aid lawyer, you are likely to be able to find a private lawyer to take on your case, but you will need to be able to pay their legal fees.
Some private law firms have “ fixed-fee” arrangements – they charge you a fixed amount for working on an aspect of your case, (such as a fresh claim or an appeal). With a fixed-fee arrangement, if the lawyer has to spend a lot of time on your case, or very little, the cost remains the same. Or you could “cap your costs”: instruct your lawyer of the maximum amount you will spend. These approaches can be helpful if your supporters or community are fundraising to meet these costs.
Some lawyers offer “Conditional Fee Agreements”, also known as “No Win No Fee” agreements. This may be helpful, but make sure you are clear what the fees will be if you do win.
Some law firms, whether using fixed fee or not, allow you to pay the costs in instalments and this may mean you are able to save/fundraise the money over a longer period of time.
When using a private lawyer, make sure you know what you are paying for, and how much you are paying.
If you do not agree with the bill you receive, you can challenge it. The first letter you received from your lawyer (called a “client care letter”) should have information about how to do this.
Another option may be finding a lawyer who will take on your case pro bono. The term pro bono refers to legal work that is performed voluntarily and free of charge. The lawyer does not seek any payment for the work.
Because of the legal aid cuts, more and more work is being done pro bono, so it may not be easy to find a lawyer who is able to do this. The stronger and more compelling your case is, the more likely it is a lawyer will take it on. Think about how you can explain why your case is strong. Friends and supporters can help by finding evidence to support your case.
Your local law centre, or the law department at your local university, may have pro bono clinics. You can also ask a service provider of your MP to contact the pro bono charity Advocate.
- If you are struggling to get a legal aid lawyer to take on your case, it may help to go through your case with a knowledgable friend/supporter and think about how to present it to a lawyer in the strongest possible way. Getting evidence to support your story may help with this.
- Similarly, friends/supporters may be able to help you think about how to explain your case to a lawyer you are asking to take on your case pro bono.
- If you cannot get a legal aid lawyer, supporters/your community could fundraise to pay for private legal fees.
Finding a lawyer
You can look for an immigration advisor using these directories.
The Law Society has a database on their website you can search. Choose “immigration and changing countries” under “Your Legal Issue”, then put in your location. When the search results come up, you can then refine the search results to show those that have legal aid services (“accepts legal aid”) and for the type of case your have (asylum, immigration etc). If you are in Scotland, you can search for a lawyer on the Law Society of Scotland website here. Choose “immigration” as the area of law.
Communicating with your lawyer
Legal aid lawyers are very busy and they can find it hard to respond to you quickly. Remember that they need time to work on your case, and ringing them a lot will not allow them to do this. But if your lawyer is very slow in getting back to you, or doesn’t explain themselves properly, you should try to get your questions answered (and find someone to help ask the questions if necessary).
It’s ok to ask your lawyer questions: they are there to help you.
If it is difficult to speak to your lawyer on the phone, then an easier way to speak to them might be to arrange an appointment.
Alternatively, you can send a letter or email. Often lawyers will find it easier to reply to emails than phone calls.
If you do not want to speak to your lawyer, because you are feeling too stressed, upset, or another reason, you can ask a friend/supporter to speak to them for you but you must provide written and signed consent to do this.
At times, a busy lawyer may find it easier to quickly speak to or reply by email to a friend/supporter who has knowledge of the legal system, but they should explain to you directly when there is important information or questions they need answering.
- You should always have a copy of your documents, and anything your lawyer has submitted to the Home Office. Keep all your paperwork together in one organised file.
- You should always know the last action your lawyer took: what they did, when, and when they expect a response.
- Your lawyer should speak to you before and after each stage in your application (e.g. your Home Office interviews, the decisions on your case).
- Make sure your lawyer knows your contact details. If you change address or phone number, let your lawyer know as soon as possible.
- Contact your lawyer any time you receive a letter from the Home Office or from the Courts and Tribunals service.
- Contact your lawyer prior to any appointments with the Home Office (other than routine reporting/signing events).
People sometimes say that they have had a certain lawyer for a long time and nothing is being done on their case. Find out why. Is your lawyer waiting for you to gather evidence? Has your lawyer done all they can and they are now waiting for a response from the Home Office? Has your lawyer actually said they can’t do anything further on your case?
It’s vital to know whether or not you have a current application with the Home Office. If you have no leave to remain and no outstanding applications, you are at high risk of detention and removal/deportation.
Meeting with your lawyer
- Before you go to see your lawyer for an appointment, think about what you need to tell your lawyer, and what you need to find out from them, at the meeting.
- You may want to make some notes to use as a reminder in the meeting. Or, you could ask a friend to make a list of things you want to talk about that you can give to your lawyer in the meeting.
- Think about language beforehand. In your meeting/appointment, can you use English (or another language that you share with the lawyer) to say what you need to say, and to understand anything you need to find out? Or do you need an interpreter’s help? If you need an interpreter, make sure that your lawyer’s office knows in advance and ask them if they can provide one.
- Bring all your relevant documents with you to the meeting, including any Home Office letters or decisions. These contain information that it is important for your lawyer to know about. Ask your lawyer to explain anything that you do not understand.
- It is very important that you are open with your lawyer and tell them everything that might be relevant to your case. They can help you best if you have given them all the relevant information. Remember that what you say to your lawyer is kept confidential, and that interpreters must also respect confidentiality.
- In the meeting, listen carefully to your lawyer. If you find it hard to understand them, do not be afraid to ask your lawyer to speak more slowly, or to explain something, or to say something again. It is your lawyer’s job to make sure that you understand their advice.
- If it helps you, you can ask your lawyer to write down important words or key points. You can also make notes yourself, if you want – this is not rude.
- It is important to say if you do not understand something. Your lawyer may think that you understand them if you stay silent.
- If the meeting lasts for a long time, and you get tired or start to lose concentration, you can ask for a break. When we are tired, we all find it more difficult to communicate well.
- Where an interpreter is involved in the meeting, the interpreter should introduce herself/himself and check that you both understand each other. If you cannot understand each other, you have the right to ask for a different interpreter who speaks your language or dialect.
- Try to speak using short sentences, and pause regularly to allow the interpreter to translate your words.
- If the interpreter and the lawyer have a conversation with each other in English, you can ask the interpreter to tell you what they were talking about. You have the right to know what they said. In the same way, if you have a conversation with the interpreter in your language, the lawyer can ask the interpreter to explain what you talked about.
- If you feel uncomfortable or unhappy with the interpreter for any reason, you should tell the lawyer how you feel and ask for a different interpreter. This might happen if you think they are not translating what you or the lawyer says properly, or if you do not feel able to talk about a particular topic or event in front of them, or for another reason. It is important that you can trust your interpreter and talk freely in front of him or her.
- Before you leave the meeting, make sure that you have given your lawyer all the information you have, and all of your questions have been answered. Use the notes or list that you brought with you, if you have one.
- Make sure that you know what the next step in your case is, and who will be taking action (you, your lawyer, the Home Office, someone else?). If you have to do something, make sure that you have all the information you need to be able to do it.
- After the meeting, your lawyer may send you a letter with a summary of what you talked about in the meeting. If you cannot read English well, tell your lawyer and ask them to write any letters in simple language.
A complaint against your lawyer
You can make a complaint if:
- you receive poor advice or service
- you are charged unreasonable fees
- an adviser claims you’ll be successful
- an adviser charges you for work not done
- an adviser misses deadlines or fails to appear in court
If errors have been made in your case by your lawyer, and you are later trying to explain that to the Home Office, it may be helpful to have a written record of a complaint.
A complaint may also be necessary if you wish to change your legal aid lawyer, and the new lawyer will be working on the same legal issue as your previous lawyer (unless more than six months has passed, or you have moved a long way from where your lawyer is based).
You can ask to speak to your lawyer’s supervisor for information on how to complain, or go to the OISC website.
You can also complain to the Legal Ombudsman.
Legal support (not legal advice)
Because of legal aid cuts, more people seeking the right to remain in the UK are now forced to represent themselves (they don’t have a lawyer).
It is illegal for anyone who isn’t accredited with OISC or another regulatory body to give legal advice in asylum or immigration cases. There are lots of things that can friends or supporters can do, however, to help in a legal case without providing legal advice. We call this help “legal support”.
What is legal advice?
Legal advice can be defined as the application of legal rules and principles to a specific set of facts that proposes a course of action.
The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 definition includes immigration advice and services “provided in the course of business, whether or not done for profit. This includes occasional help offered to members of a community”. This means that community groups and support groups cannot give legal advice unless they are doing so as a regulated body.
If you are not qualified to give legal advice, you can still give legal information. Legal information is factual, generic and does not address any one particular cause of action.
Providing legal information in the asylum and immigration context could be explaining how the asylum and immigration system works, what the most recent country guidance case on The Gambia is, or what an “injunction” is. This is not providing legal advice.
If you aren’t a legal professional, it is very unlikely you will have the necessary up-to-date knowledge to provide correct legal advice. Wrong advice is worse than no advice.
Even if the advice you are giving does not fall into the category of “legal advice”, remember that the person seeking the right to remain should be making all the decisions. Even if someone asks for your advice, try not to be tell them what to do but instead give information about their options. You can give information about the benefits and risks of the various options, and then support them in making the decision themselves.
There are many things that community/support groups can do to provide legal support without giving legal advice. You can:
- provide general legal information (you can use this Toolkit to do this)
- before somebody applies for asylum or immigration status, or while they are going through the process, sit down and go through the different stages and what can happen at each stage. You may want to use our Toolkit, materials available online, or your own personal or professional experience.
- research evidence on a country of origin or particular situation of the person you are supporting
- use your contacts to ask an expert to write a report to support the legal case
- help gather useful letters for the case – this might be from a school, Social Services, medical or mental health professionals, community groups
- read someone’s Reasons for Refusal Letter or court judgment and point out which parts of their story are being doubted
- find other case law or guidelines that these documents refer to
- explain the meaning of technical terms in legal documents
- type up what someone wants to say in response to a Reasons for Refusal Letter, or other negative decision, especially if they find written English difficult
- help someone talk to their lawyer, if they are not comfortable doing this themselves
- help someone prepare for an asylum interview, asylum/human rights appeal, or judicial review hearing. This may be by providing emotional support, practical information about where they have to go and how to get there, explaining the lay-out and personnel of the court, or listening to someone give their testimony so that the first time they do this is not in a hostile setting.
- help someone prepare in case they are detained, and agree a plan of action for if they are detained.
- visit someone if they are detained
You will find more information about all of these actions as you go through the Toolkit.