Following our registration with OISC (Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner), Michael and Jess began working for JRS UK to set-up a new specialist Legal Advice Project. We chat with them about the success and challenges so far.
Why has JRS started a legal project? What is the need?
Michael: Cuts to already inadequate legal aid have decimated quality legal advice. Good quality legal advice and representation providers find it harder and harder to provide the level of support they want to in the face of growing need. The asylum and immigration system leaves thousands unable to progress their cases and rebuild their lives.
Jess: JRS UK works with around 300 destitute refugees and people seeking asylum – many of whom do not have any legal representation. It is of the utmost importance that asylum seekers receive accurate legal advice, as the implications of poor advice can be extremely detrimental to a case, which in turn has other implications on our refugee friend’s lives and the support available to them.
Michael: Our refugee friends can easily become vulnerable to unscrupulous advisers who see them only as a source of income. By setting up a legal project we provide access to free advice, provide representation where we can and help others in the sector provide the support our refugee friends so badly need.
What types of cases are you seeing?
Michael: All the people that are registered with JRS UK are appeals rights exhausted asylum seekers…
Jess: …meaning that they’ve previously had their asylum claim refused by the Home Office.
Michael: Exactly. So many need advice about making new protection claims (‘Fresh Claims’) based on new evidence or changing country situations. Some of our friends have not had clear legal advice before and it is the first time they have had the chance to understand what has happened in their case previously, and what they should do next.
Jess: We take into consideration all aspects of their case, including new evidence; changes in family and private life; and the amount of time they have been in the UK – factors which may give rise to other legal routes.
Michael: Many of our friends are not able to get documentation from any country – their ‘home country’ or any other country – are so in practice stateless.
Describe an ‘average’ day in the legal project.
Michael: Our appointments are a mix of longer sessions taking detailed instructions and drafting statements with clients, and shorter sessions advising on next steps or updating them on what progress we are making. When we are not with clients we are drafting advice letters or preparing written representations to the Home Office, researching evidence and legal issues and planning what to do.
Jess: And on Thursday’s at the Day Centre, we register new refugee friends who are attending JRS for the first time. We have a number of religious sisters who have been doing these interviews for many years, and it’s wonderful for us to be able to accompany one another in this task – it’s the first time someone is coming to JRS, and they are often distressed and confused at coming to yet another support service. The sisters have a wonderful way at helping people feel at ease and at home quickly.
Michael: We spend a significant amount of time tearing our hair out at Home Office policy, and anytime we have left we are making tea!
JRS UK is looking for volunteers to accompany our refugee friends to the Home Office and to Embassies in support of their legal case.
How long have you been working with asylum seekers and refugees?
Michael: I’ve been working with asylum seekers and refugees for 23 years. From 1996 to 2010 with Refugee Legal Centre (later called Refugee and Migrant Justice) and then at Lambeth Law Centre.
Jess: I started working with asylum seekers and refugees in 2016 when I joined the Red Cross’s Refugee Services as a volunteer caseworker. I have previously worked mainly as a litigation solicitor, continuing various voluntary positions alongside this work, including as a human rights lawyer in Ghana and as a trustee for a refugee charity.
Is working for JRS different than places you’ve worked before? In what ways?
Michael: It is massively different in many ways, and similar in others. From a legal advice point of view, its much smaller – at Lambeth Law Centre we had 4 or 5 people working on immigration/asylum as well as other lawyers, and at the Refugee Legal Centre there were dozens. So we rely on being part of a wider sector to have a sense of what the legal issues are, which I’ve learnt is part of JRS’ mission: to offer our own expertise where we have it, and to collaborate with others who have different expertise.
We are not funded by a legal aid contract, which most of my previous work has been, so we are not constantly worried about hitting targets, billing, or checking people’s evidence of means. It doesn’t mean we don’t work as hard, just we don’t have to do that side of the bureaucracy.
Jess: JRS UK is an extremely special place to work, and unlike anywhere I have worked before. It is very rewarding being part of a team so driven by a shared mission. I learn so much from my colleagues and from our refugee friends. The environment at JRS UK is supportive, encouraging and inspiring. Having a friendly, safe space where I can spend time with our refugee friends, both in relation to their cases and also just having a chat over lunch or at the Day Centre, is unique and extremely positive.
Michael: We feel we are part of a team that has a real mission to stand with the most marginalised in a very real and personal sense and that impacts on how we work with and for our refugee friends. We have more time to see them, to be accessible to them, and to ensure they understand what is happening.
Have you enjoyed setting up the project from scratch? What have been the biggest challenges you’ve found?
Michael: It has been very exciting setting up the project, talking to others in the sector about what we are doing and why, and planning how we will work together. We have a long way to go but we have already had an impact on how JRS UK works and on some individual cases.
Jess: To have the opportunity to set up a project from scratch has been incredible, and I am extremely lucky to be working with Michael and all the experience he brings to the project. I remember clearly the first day we sat in the legal office together – talking about the project and getting to know each other’s ideas and experiences. It has (and continues to be) an amazing experience – we are now working closely with many of our refugee friends to develop and strengthen their cases. I am excited to see the project continue to grow.
Michael: The biggest challenges have been finding a fit between our experience of working on protection cases from a legal perspective and the experience of working closely alongside our colleagues and our refugee friends. In practical terms we also face the challenges of resources – ensuring we have interpreters and working out how to deal with the need for expert evidence in some cases.
Jess: We frequently come across areas that need contemplation and focus, for example, which interpreters to use, how to record/store information, and simply how to use the printers! We are discussing and dealing with these matters as they arise, and have great support from the JRS UK team, which is invaluable.
JRS UK is taking part in the London Legal Walk on Monday 17th June.
What’s been a highlight for you so far?
Michel: Apart from the welcome we have received from the JRS family the highlight so far has been working with a new refugee friend, putting together a fresh claim, linking them up with a volunteer to accompany them to the Home Office and seeing them flourish in the welcome that the day centre offers.
Jess: I have many, but a few are…Working with, getting to know, and seeing the positive transformation in our refugee friends following support from JRS UK. Getting to know and working alongside an inspiring, knowledgeable and supportive team at JRS UK. Working with, and learning from, Michael – I am very grateful for his support and guidance.
JRS UK is hugely grateful to the Congregation of Jesus Sisters and the Marist Sisters for providing the initial funding for the Legal Project. Without their support, we would not be able to support our refugee friends with this unique legal advice service.
Image: Our legal team (L-R) Michael, Legal Officer; Lujaina, Legal Project Volunteer; and Jess, Legal Caseworker