What is legal aid?
Legal aid is free legal advice and assistance for people who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer. Legal aid is funded by the UK government, via the “Legal Aid Agency” (LAA), which is an Executive Agency of the Ministry of Justice. Although legal aid is funded by the UK government, lawyers who provide legal aid are independent from the government and all work carried out by those lawyers is confidential. It is not shared with the Home Office. The LAA checks legal aid files in order to check that the legal aid lawyers are abiding by their contract, providing a good service and have evidence on their files that they are only assisting those who are eligible for legal aid.
How can someone find a legal aid lawyer?
Legal aid is normally provided by registered legal aid lawyers who are in a survivor’s local area. It is possible to provide legal aid to an individual who does not live in the area near to the legal aid lawyer’s office, however a lawyer might ask for evidence that more local lawyers have said they cannot help.
You can search online for legal aid lawyers, including by different types of law or geographical area using this online UK government website: https://find-legal-advice.justice.gov.uk/.
Alternatively you can call Civil Legal Advice on 0345 345 4 345 (Minicom: 0345 609 6677). Lines are open: Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm and Saturday, 9am to 12:30pm. . If you’re worried about the cost of the call, text ‘legal aid’ and your name to 80010. They will call you back within 24 hours and have a free interpreter service, if English isn’t your first language.
The Law Society also has an online search tool to find solicitors, however not all lawyers on this search tool will provide legal aid so you will need to filter your search to find legal aid lawyers: https://solicitors.lawsociety.org.uk/.
Support professionals and legal aid professionals can join ATLEU’s Referrals Portal, which is our secure resource for connecting support professionals who are helping survivors find lawyers with legal aid practitioners. The referrals portal is for referring survivors of modern slavery, whether or not they are in the NRM, who need legal advice on immigration, compensation, housing or support. The referrals portal does not offer referrals for family or criminal law. A support worker uploads relevant information about a case, which is then sent out to legal aid lawyers who have expressed an interest in representing survivors of modern slavery (not just lawyers at ATLEU). The lawyers then accept or decline the request and can contact the support professional directly. If you do not hear back about something posted on the portal it unfortunately was not picked up. You can renew the listing to keep it visible on the platform.
Please note that the referral portal does not guarantee the quality of any lawyer which may be contacted via the referral portal; its purpose is to make it easier for support professionals to connect with lawyers, rather than a quality assured tool. We strongly advise that before formally instructing any lawyer via any of the methods above, you ensure that you have asked the lawyer whether they have sufficient training and experience to properly represent a survivor of modern slavery.
What kinds of legal matters can survivors get legal aid assistance with?
There are different levels of legal aid assistance:
- Legal help – advice and assistance in the initial stages of a legal problem, to understand your options, to make an application or request about your legal rights, put together evidence to explain your case well, help you negotiate and prepare written legal arguments.
- Controlled Legal Representation – for advice and representation in immigration appeals and proceedings in the Mental Health Tribunal.
- Legal Representation – for court proceedings. It usually relates to higher levels of court like the County Court, High Court, Upper Tribunal, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court.
Since April 2013 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), some areas of law are no longer available via legal aid. Nevertheless there are still a wide range of legal matters that may likely affect survivors that are available on legal aid. The LAA grants specific contracts to legal aid lawyersin order to provide advice and representation in different areas of law. It’s important to know what type of legal problem you are looking for help with when looking for a legal aid lawyer and check which lawyers offer legal work in the area you need. We have listed some legal cases that might fall under some different legal aid “categories”. This is not a comprehensive list of all legal aid work and all types of case. If in doubt, please ask a legal aid lawyer if the type of problem you need help with is something they can assist with or use this online checking tool: https://www.gov.uk/check-legal-aid
Only for appeals on a point of law in the Upper Tribunal, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court (not initial benefits advice)
Claims against public authorities (courts/tribunals or a person whose functions are of a public nature)
- Police complaints
- Victims right to review
- Failures to refer, protect and safeguard a survivor eg by the police, Home Office or a local authority
- False imprisonment
- Human Rights Act breaches
- Disputes over the age a young survivor is assessed to be
- Disputes over assessment and care plans
- Disputes in relation to local authority support and accommodation
- Deprivation of liberty
- Capacity and best interests issues to do with someone’s health and welfare
- “Court of Protection” work
- Police station representation (if someone is under investigation for a criminal offence)
- Defence at trial
- Appeal of conviction/sentence
- Criminal bail
[Criminal legal aid is for people accused of or defending themselves against allegations of committing a criminal offence. It does not allow for a victim or complainant in criminal proceedings to be advised and represented for free.]
- Advice in relation to a court order for sale of your home
- Advice in relation to bankruptcy that involves your home
- Local authority investigations relating to a child or applications to the court for a care order, supervision order, emergency protection order or child assessment order
- Applications for a court order if you are a victim of domestic violence (eg to protect you from your abuser or let you stay in the family home)
- Divorce, financial proceedings on divorce or applications and arrangements for children eg about contact (but only if you have suffered domestic violence or can show that a child is at risk of abuse)
- Eviction or where there are court proceedings to take possession of your home eg brought by a landlord because of rent arrears
- Homelessness including suitability of accommodation
- Local authority duties to provide accommodation
- Disrepair (when a home is not safe and suitable to occupy) in certain cases (that involve removing or reducing a serious risk of harm to the health or safety of an individual or family member)
- Asylum support
- Advice about and attendance at meetings including a Hospital Managers’ Review or Professionals meeting
- Advice on mental capacity
- Advice and representation in relation to the Mental Health Tribunal
- Judicial review to challenge unlawful acts or omissions by the state such as:
- Failure to provide housing/support or suitable housing/support for a survivor before, during or after the NRM
- Disputes over the age a young survivor is assessed to be
- Removal decisions
- Unlawful detention
- Challenges to a decision that someone is not a survivor at reasonable or conclusive grounds stage
- Challenge to a refusal to grant temporary leave to a survivor (VTS)
- Human Rights claims for example, claims to stay because of a need for medical treatment
- Applications based on a family or personal life
- Temporary Permission to Stay as a Victim of Modern Slavery (VTS)
- An application for indefinite leave by a victim of domestic violence
- Permission to stay as an Overseas Domestic Worker
- EU Settlement Scheme applications/appeals
- Immigration bail
Please note that immigration legal aid is only usually available for a limited number of legal problems. If a survivor has a a positive reasonable grounds or conclusive grounds decision they can get advice on any type of immigration application including all those above.
Trafficking compensation claims and employment advice
- Unfair dismissal
- Discrimination related to employment
- Breach of contract eg relating to non or under payment of wages
- Protection from harassment claims eg due to physical, verbal or sexual abuse
- Compensation for personal injury
- False imprisonment
Common issues where there is no right to legal aid for survivors
Advice before the NRM process
There is no right to legal aid specifically for advice on the NRM process, or on how a referral into the NRM might affect their right to stay in the UK, before they go into the NRM.
An immigration legal aid lawyer may be able to provide this advice as part of an asylum claim – the person can then get legal aid advice on the NRM wrapped up with advice about asylum. This would apply even if someone is considering whether to make an asylum claim but has not yet made a claim. A public law legal aid lawyer may be able to provide advice on the NRM if it is connected to a judicial review matter or a potential judicial review .
The government has made provision for advice before someone goes into the NRM to be given by some legal aid lawyers, but this is not yet in force (at the time of writing) and in immigration cases it would only apply if you can already access legal aid e.g. for an asylum case. An individual can apply to the Legal aid Agency for ‘exceptional case funding’ (ECF) to fund this pre-NRM advice if legal aid is not otherwise available.
Advice while you are in the NRM
Unless you also need advice on leave to remain, you cannot get advice on conclusive identification as a survivor of modern slavery under legal aid – for example, if you are British, or have a durable or permanent form of immigration status like refugee status or indefinite leave. A public lawyer may be able to help give advice and help to get a positive conclusive grounds decision if they feel they can justify this because of other unlawful behaviour by the government, like a previous negative decision.
Criminal injuries compensation
There is no right to legal aid for advice on these applications but you may be able to apply for discretionary legal aid (exceptional case funding) to get advice.
Financial eligibility for legal aid (means test)
Once a legal aid lawyer has been contacted who is able to potentially take on the case, the first thing that will happen is that the income and capital of a survivor (and any partner) will be assessed by that lawyer to check if they are financially eligible for legal aid. Unfortunately, survivors do not automatically qualify for legal aid just because they are in the NRM.
You can check if you pass the financial test for legal aid here: https://www.gov.uk/check-legal-aid
Some people are ‘passported’ for legal aid (which means they will pass the means test), for example, people who are on s.4 or s.95 asylum support in immigration initial advice cases and appeals will automatically pass the income and capital test. (If they do not have a letter stating you get asylum support that is dated within the last 6 months, a legal aid lawyer can still assess you for legal aid. Ask if they can do a ‘full means test’ and bring whatever you have to show your financial situation for the last month.)
People on certain means tested benefits will pass the income test but still need to pass the capital test.
In any case where a legal aid lawyer must look at all of someone’s income, the lawyer is only allowed to deduct certain expenses (for example, they cannot take off the cost of food, phone contracts or utilities). In practice many survivors are likely to be eligible for legal aid. Depending on the type of legal aid case that will be opened, there will be slightly different financial thresholds that determine who is eligible for legal aid. For example, to be financially eligible for an initial immigration advice matter, after deducting income needed for outgoings for dependants, housing costs and other specified expenses, the individual should have £733.00 per calendar month or less in disposable income and £8000 or less in savings.
No income or capital
In some cases a survivor may state they have no access to any income or capital. It would be for the legal aid lawyer to decide and make a detailed note on the file (and depending on the type of legal aid, request to the LAA) about the circumstances and whether or not it was therefore impracticable to obtain evidence of means.
A child under 18 can be assessed on their income and capital alone, where the legal aid lawyer considers it unfair to assess the child’s finances together with an adult who maintains them. If the child does not have a regular income or any capital in excess of £2,500, no further assessment is required. Where a child is a ‘looked after’ child (i.e. the responsibility of the local authority) the LAA says it would usually not be fair for their foster carer or social worker’s income and capital to be put together with the child’s.
A child under 18 who is applying for Controlled Legal Representation or Legal Representation does not need any means assessment. If the child turns 18 during the course of the case they will usually need to have a means assessment.
In some cases recipients of legal aid are required to pay a contribution to their legal costs because of the level of their income or capital.
If someone’s financial situation changes, they are required to inform their lawyer so they can do a new assessment to see if the person still qualifies.
Legal aid forms and evidence of finances
A legal aid form will be completed and signed, and evidence of a survivor’s (and their partner if they have one) income and savings (and sometimes /capital) showing a specific period will be needed for the file. Completing legal aid forms can seem difficult and intrusive because personal financial information is required from the survivor and their partner, if they have one, all in the first meeting with their new lawyer. This information is stored confidentially on a legal aid file. However these are strict rules that legal aid lawyers have to comply with to show someone meets the legal aid rules and the LAA must be able to check all the information and evidence at an audit.
How strong does the case have to be to get legal aid? (merits test)
As legal aid is paid for by the UK government, legal aid lawyers can only take cases that pass a merits test, so that using taxpayers’ money is justified.
For initial work on an application (“legal help” – work before court proceedings), the merits test is very low. The lawyer should be satisfied that there is likely to be “sufficient benefit” to the individual, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, including the circumstances of the individual, to justify the cost of providing legal aid. The lawyer should review the arguments and evidence that could be put forward in the case and determine whether a reasonable private paying individual of moderate means would pay for the legal advice and assistance for the prospective case. The low threshold of the sufficient benefit test allows lawyers to open a file in most cases. However the sufficient benefit test should be continually reviewed as as the case progresses.
If the survivor receives a negative decision on the case which requires an appeal or a judicial review, the merits test is higher. For a judicial review, the merits test for is that the prospects of success at a final hearing should be “very good”, “good” or “moderate”. If the prospects of success are “borderline” or “marginal” , the case must either be of significant wider public interest or a case of overwhelming importance to the individual. For an immigration appeal of a negative decision the merits test is 50% or above.
Lawyers apply to the LAA for legal aid in cases that require “Legal Representation” at court stage. It is the LAA (rather than the legal aid lawyer) that makes the decision on funding. If the Legal Aid Agency decides there is not enough merit the lawyer can request that the decision is reviewed by an Independent Funding Adjudicator which can be a lengthy process without any further appeal.
If an immigration legal aid representative decides there is not enough merit to represent a survivor in an immigration appeal, the survivor can challenge that decision by explaining why their case is strong enough on the CW4 form. The legal aid lawyer must help the individual complete the form with their reasons why they think the case is still good enough to deserve legal aid and send it to the LAA, who will ask an independent adjudicator to review the decision and say if they think the case has merit. If they believe the case is strong enough to appeal, the survivor can approach the same or a different legal aid lawyer to represent them on legal aid. The survivor could send the form themselves to the LAA here: MHU-EC@justice.gov.uk. However, if one lawyer says the case is not strong enough to take to an appeal, a new lawyer can make up their own mind on the strength of the case, even if a CW4 form has not been completed.
Survivors may be told by legal aid lawyers that their case is not strong enough because they do not already have evidence, such as medical evidence. Legal aid can be used to obtain evidence such as a medical report, if this is a reasonable and proportionate expense in the case. See our section on what to expect when working with lawyers.
Exceptional Case Funding (ECF)
This is a discretionary type of legal aid where you need a decision that your case justifies a free lawyer from the Legal Aid Agency directly, before a lawyer can begin work. An application for exceptional case funding (ECF) can be made for help with any legal problem which is not covered by automatic legal aid any more, if you think that not having free legal help will lead to a breach of your human rights or retained enforceable EU rights. If funding is granted the individual can access legal aid, if they can also find a lawyer willing to take on the case. The individual must show that their case meets the “means” and “merits” for legal aid
Applying for ECF
There is more about the process here: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/legal-aid-apply-for-exceptional-case-funding
An applicant can apply for exceptional legal aid themselves or get free help from some organisations just with the funding application, or from a legal aid solicitor. If the individual is applying themselves, or with the help of a support worker, they do not need to fill in an application form. The Legal Aid Agency says they accept a minimum of the following information in writing (and signed by the applicant):
- Background to your case, including all the main facts.
- What you need legal advice on or what court proceedings you need representation in. Explain why you cannot represent yourself.
- What outcome you wish to achieve.
- Information that will support your application eg court applications and orders, expert and medical reports, copies of any decisions you wish to challenge.
- Information on your financial situation.
Sometimes a legal aid lawyer is working on a part of the case funded by legal aid and might apply for ECF to pay for the work not already covered by legal aid. It can also apply just to one part of the case that is not funded by legal aid, so they may already have a legal aid lawyer doing work on other parts of the case which can be funded by legal aid. It can be a good idea to check if a legal aid lawyer is willing to take on the case if ECF is granted, before an individual applies themselves, as it can be hard to find legal aid lawyers even if you are entitled to legal aid.
It should take 25 working days to get a decision. If the Legal Aid Agency agrees that the matter is urgent, the person should get a decision in 10 working days. It may take longer to get a decision. If the deadline has passed, ring the LAA to tell them that and ask that the decision be “expedited” (processed quickly).
If an application is urgent this can be flagged on the front of the application form (if you are using one) and inside. It is also a good idea to make sure anything in writing that goes with an application (eg an email or letter) says at the top why the case is urgent. The LAA gives examples in its guidance about what they consider urgent including an “imminent date for a hearing” or “imminent expiry” of a deadline or reasons why delay would harm the case. If you wanted them to deal with the case urgently, ring up the LAA after the application has been submitted to check it has been received and is being treated as urgent.
Applications can be made by email only:
You might need to send several emails if you have a lot of attachments.
Telephone: 0300 200 2020
Private or pro bono lawyers?
Some lawyers charge fees in order to represent someone in their trafficking or related legal matters, they are called private lawyers. It is important to remember that private legal representatives should inform a survivor about legal aid, and signpost them to legal aid lawyers, even if they do not provide legal aid themselves.
In the UK, if a lawyer charges money for their services it does not necessarily mean that it is a better service than a legal aid lawyer. Whatever type of funding a lawyer works under, a survivor should always make sure they feel comfortable with them and their experience, and understand the nature of the service they are getting.
If a survivor cannot find a free service to help them and cannot afford to pay legal fees, they could put themselves at risk to pay for legal advice. For some people, there may be ways to communicate information that is required to a public body, or an organisation contracted by the state, asking for it even if they do not have a lawyer or access resources to help them navigate a legal process without a lawyer. Please contact ATLEU’s advice line if you are a professional supporting a survivor and want to ask about a client in this situation, in case there is anything we can suggest: email@example.com
If a survivor is sure they want to pay a lawyer for help, before paying fees, they should make sure they understand:
- How much the fees will be for the amount of work they want the lawyer to do
- What and whose work they cover
- What extra payments may be needed on top of the payment for the lawyer’s time, e.g. for interpreters, experts, Home Office and court fees.
- The structure of the payment. Some lawyers charge per hour and some charge in a block (called a “fixed fee”).
- If there are any payment arrangements the lawyers may offer, for example, can you pay in instalments or stages for different pieces of work
- Ask how much they will pay if they decide to stop working with them (usually if you pay a “fixed fee”, the fee is non refundable).
They should get any information about costs in writing, whether in a quote or in a letter after the case starts and as costs change during the case. They should agree a fee before paying anything out and get a receipt for any money actually paid.
The survivor may want to meet with more than one lawyer to see who they feel can offer them the best service for an affordable price. In many areas of law, a survivor may have to pay for initial consultations with different lawyers and that fee may not be refundable.
If a survivor agrees to a fee then cannot pay after work has been done, the lawyer may hold on to documents until the fee is paid. They should be given a copy of them and may be able to negotiate for their release even if they cannot pay the full fee.
It is illegal to provide immigration advice if not regulated. Private Immigration advisers who charge fees may be regulated by the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC). They may work in a law firm regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority so should comply with its general regulations and standards. They are still required to provide good client care and work in their clients’ best interests. Specific information about this from the SRA can be found here. Every lawyer should give you information at the start of their work with you that explains who regulates them and how you can complain if you are not happy with their service.
Some lawyers may offer to carry out work “pro bono”. This means that they work on a legal case for free, but they are not being paid for their work (as opposed to legal aid lawyers who do not charge the client but are paid by the government). Pro bono services may not be able to undertake immigration casework for the whole length of a case and may not be able to cover extra costs like interpreters or expert reports.
If you pay an immigration lawyer or ask a “pro bono” lawyer to help you with court proceedings, there is the the risk of the survivor having to pay a litigation debt if the case is unsuccessful. In immigration cases, litigation debt is a debt owed to the Home Office because a court or Tribunal has ordered a person to pay the Home Office’s legal costs. It can arise from all types of litigation, including appeals, judicial reviews and private law claims such as unlawful detention.
Owing a litigation debt can of course be very stressful and/or re-traumatising for survivors, it may also mean that they are excluded from obtaining immigration status in future because their application could be refused on “suitability grounds”. However if a survivor has been granted legal aid, they are likely to be entitled to a degree of protection from these costs if they lose the case. Before agreeing that a non legal aid lawyer can assist with any court proceedings, a survivor should always ask them what the cost risk for the survivor is if they lose: is there a risk and how much could this be?
Considerations before approaching a lawyer
These are some things to consider before you approach a lawyer about a survivor’s case.
- What is the survivor’s preference? Always discuss what the survivor would like with them so they can make the choice about who will take on their case.
- Does anyone you know have any feedback about working with this lawyer or organisation? It is always good to ask colleagues about their experience for other clients.
If you have not worked with the lawyer or organisation before, you could ask if you could do a short call with the lawyer to ask about a few things that are important to clients, to get an idea of the service that will be provided:
- Travel expenses. Will they reimburse travel expenses for clients who need to go to appointments with the lawyer to give them information or say what they think about a course of action? (Usually these are not covered for going to meet a lawyer except in immigration cases when:
- There is no more local lawyer who can help and
- The individual is getting asylum support or
- Is an unaccompanied asylum seeking child getting support from social services or
- Is getting support from the local authority under the Care Act 2014, Children Act 1989 or Immigration Act 2016 or
- Is destitute in the reasonable opinion of the lawyer.
- Client appointments. Is the client able to call up whenever they have questions, to talk to the lawyer with an interpreter if they need one?
It is important the lawyer is approachable and has time for the client, especially when cases have a lot of different parts and clients may have new things to tell the lawyer over time, or need reminding of advice. It is not always possible for a lawyer to speak to a client as soon as they have a question, but clients should be able to speak to the lawyer at a mutually convenient time, with an interpreter, in person, by phone or by video.
- Getting documents. Will they help the client to get a full copy of their Home Office, SCA, police or any other file?
Getting documents is a big job and one that helps understand a client’s background and will also reveal things about the client that may be unhelpful and need to be addressed and understood by the lawyer early on. Sometimes you might be able to help the client to get documents, for example, helping them organise documents in their possession to hand over to the lawyer.
- Statements. Do they prepare statements with clients?
In an immigration case, writing out someone’s story, including their background before their modern slavery experience, is often an effective way to explain vulnerability to the Home Office, and find out information the client may not volunteer in an interview. Some lawyers do not like to send in statements to the Home Office before an interview but it is good to know if they will prepare them with a client in any case so the client understand the sort of questions they may be asked, and for the lawyer to have a detailed background of the client’s life to make their arguments and clarify anything not clearly expressed by the client to the Home Office.
- Will the lawyer get a medico legal report for the client if they need one? How often do they get these reports in the modern slavery cases they work on?
Medico legal reports are detailed medical opinions from psychologists or psychiatrists that answer tailored questions from a lawyer about the client. Sometimes a very detailed GP or therapist letter can be enough but it needs to cover specific questions relevant to the modern slavery elements of the case, which the lawyer will know how to ask. Opinions like this can be crucial to success in most modern slavery cases and lawyers can arrange legal aid funding to pay for them and ask the experts the right questions to make sure the report is good.
- Will they help the client to make arguments about why they should get a positive Conclusive Grounds decision while the client is in the NRM?
Lawyers get funding on legal aid to do this work and arguments made between a client getting a positive RG and CG decision help the Home Office to make a good decision on identification as a victim of modern slavery.
- If the SCA has questions or asks the client to complete a questionnaire, will the lawyer explain what the SCA is asking and be the one to reply to the SCA? If the SCA asks about documents the client and lawyer have not seen, will the lawyer ask the SCA to provide these before giving a reply?
It is important that clients understand why the SCA is asking something in a simple way, and often questions that are asked are not ones that support workers can or should answer on behalf of the client. The SCA should always provide a copy of any documents that they are relying on if they are not available to the lawyer and client already so the client can understand how this information may be used against them and properly respond. This is work the lawyer should do if you have one on the case.
- Will they be able to give advice and help the client to apply for temporary permission to stay as a victim of modern slavery (VTS leave) or any other application for leave to remain as well as asylum?
Lawyers get legal aid to give a client with a positive RG or CG decision advice on any type of application for leave to remain. This includes applications for VTS leave, which can be a very important form of leave to obtain for a client to help them feel more independent and start recovery, even while they are waiting for an asylum decision.
- What is their approach to a potential delay on a case, from the NRM or asylum team? Are they able to make formal complaints to the Home Office if there is delay or write a letter threatening court action if there is no action after a reasonable time? Proactive lawyers should be open to carrying out legal work to challenge delays on cases where appropriate.
- If clients get a negative RG, CG or decision refusing VTS leave, how often does the lawyer write a letter threatening court action in their cases? Is it every time? In 75% of such cases or less?
This question is not about actually going to court when someone gets a negative decision, but about a willingness to push back against unlawful decision making. Lawyers can help the client to challenge negative decisions from the Competent Authority (CA, either the Single Competent Authority or the Immigration Enforcement Competent Authority) by way of judicial review in court.
The first step is to write a ‘pre action letter’ which is a letter threatening court action if the CA does not change its mind. Often when you write a letter like this, the CA will agree to change its mind before starting a court process. If the lawyer does not do this sort of work regularly when their clients get negative decisions, it is useful to know from the beginning, in case there are other lawyers who can do these letters as well as the rest of the work on the case. Or if you go ahead with this lawyer, to make sure the client can be referred to a public lawyer immediately when they get a negative decision. There are very short timescales to challenge decisions you are not happy with. You should take prompt action and in any case go to court no later than three months after the decision.
What to expect when working with a lawyer
What to bring
Before meeting a client, the lawyer should speak with the survivor or support worker about what they should bring to the appointment.
The individual should bring any documents they want the lawyer to look at.
If the individual has an immigration case the individual may need to bring their positive reasonable or conclusive grounds decision to the first appointment. Ask the lawyer before the appointment if you are not sure.
The individual must bring proof of their finances for the last month (or a longer period depending on the type of case) so the lawyer can assess if they meet the legal aid means test and are able to get legal aid. The lawyer may ask someone working with the survivor if they can write a letter before the appointment or to bring to it explaining the survivor’s financial situation, if they have no other evidence.
Interpreters and gender of lawyer
The individual should tell the lawyer if they need an interpreter and if they feel comfortable talking to males and females (just in case they get a male lawyer or interpreter and don’t feel able to speak in front of them).
Unfortunately it is very common for people not to come to their first appointment without the right proof that they qualify for legal aid which means lawyers face a big risk in booking interpreters for the first session, as they will not get reimbursed for the interpreter costs by legal aid if the individual cannot show they qualify.
It is very helpful if a support service can work with the individual to ensure they have the right proof of income for the appointment and even provide some proof of income to the lawyer before the appointment so the lawyer might feel reassured to book an interpreter for that appointment. Alternatively a support service could perhaps agree to cover the cost of an interpreter for the first appointment themselves if proof of income cannot be guaranteed before the session.
What happens at the first meeting
At the first meeting, the lawyer should check if the individual can get legal aid and fill out a legal aid form, if this is relevant.
The lawyer may ask to see the survivor without anyone else present, just in case they want to talk to the lawyer by themselves. This is normal and often done as standard. Sometimes individuals prefer to tell their lawyers things that they may not want to talk about in front of a support worker, even if they have a good relationship with them, as their roles are different.
If there is an interpreter present (if needed) then the lawyer can go on to talk about issues in more detail in that first meeting.
The lawyer will ask about what has happened and what the individual wants to do now. The lawyer should give some advice.
Sometimes first meetings can be short while the individual and lawyer get to know each other, and if the individual does not feel comfortable to start giving lots of detail to the lawyer before they know them better. This is normal and okay. The lawyer can arrange a follow up appointment for a longer talk whenever the client feels comfortable.
They should send a letter after the appointment confirming what was discussed.
Advice should be written in a way the client can understand and let the client know where the case is going from here. The lawyer should also send what is known as “client care” information – this is information about the law firm or advice organisation and the lawyer, and is sometimes included in the advice letter. It tells the client and their support worker who they can go to if the lawyer is not around, with the name of the lawyer’s supervisor, and gives key contact information.
What else to expect
- Appointments to ask questions or talk about the case when the client wants to talk to the lawyer – by phone, video, or in person
- Document search – lawyers will help to request files held by other people (for example, previous lawyers, the Home Office, the SCA, the police, medical records) and go through them carefully and talk about their findings with the client before sharing the information with anyone else.
- Expert evidence to support the arguments made to the Home Office – this might be from a doctor or someone that knows about the country the client is from in an immigration case
- Statements – writing out the story of the client about their background (when it is relevant to the issues they are facing now) and the problem that has made them need legal advice
- Copies of important documents and letters – as long as the client feels comfortable to receive these. Sometimes they don’t. But they might like to have copies to keep even if they do not read them straight away. These documents include witness statements, expert reports, and letters. They might be copies of legal arguments made to the government or other side in a case.
- Advice in person and in writing after a decision to explain next steps and why the case is not strong enough for the lawyer to keep working on it, if that is their view.
What if a survivor is dissatisfied with their lawyer?
If a survivor is not satisfied with the service they are receiving from their legal aid lawyer, the first step is to communicate this to their representative, it may be that the matter is resolved through this communication. They can ask for a meeting remotely or face to face, and for someone to come with them if they would like support as they explain what is worrying them, and so they can understand the response they get (as sometimes when you are upset it can be hard to remember detail).
It’s a good idea to keep a record of any notes of a meeting or emails or letters about concerns to refer back to later and be able to clarify something that a survivor may not have understood at the time. If a survivor cannot reach their lawyer and wants to resolve the problem, or does not feel comfortable talking to their lawyer about the issue, they could ask for a meeting with another lawyer in the organisation, or the supervisor or head of department. Set out what the problem is, and see if there is a way to resolve it that suits everyone.
If the survivor is still not satisfied they may want to make a formal complaint. Taking this step can be another way to resolve an issue with the organisation before moving ahead with them. Or even if you don’t want to carry on work, it might give the survivor answers, document poor practice to explain to other people why their case was run a certain way before, and why they need to change now (e.g. the Home Office or LAA).
The first step is to check the “client care letter” which they should have been given after their first appointment. That letter should say who the complaints officer is at the legal representative’s organisation and what the complaints process is. This process should be followed. If they don’t have a letter like this, they can just contact the lawyer working on their case to say they are not happy or even explicitly that they want to make a complaint, or ask about the procedure for doing this if they want more detail.
If the survivor is still unsatisfied after the complaint has been dealt with, if the lawyer is a solicitor or barrister, a survivor can have the complaint independently looked at by the Legal Ombudsman.
The Legal Ombudsman expects complaints to be made to them within one year of the date of the act or omission about which the client is concerned or within one year of when the client should reasonably have known there was cause for complaint. The survivor must also refer their concerns to the Legal Ombudsman within six months of a final response to to the survivor in an internal complaints process:
In immigration matters, if an organisation is regulated by the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC) or if an adviser is not regulated at all, a survivor may at any time complain directly to the OISC.
The OISC can be contacted at:
Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner Complaints Team
5th Floor, 21 Bloomsbury Street,
London WC1B 3HF
Telephone: 0345 000 0046,
You usually need to make a complaint within 12 months of when you first became aware of the problem that you want to complain about. The OISC will decide whether or not to investigate depending on the situation. The OISC may refer a complaint elsewhere if you complain about a solicitor or barrister.