Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill

Memorandum submitted by The Barbara Melunsky Refugee Youth Agency Ltd, known as RefugeeYouth (LA 110)

We are RefugeeYouth, a community of young people from all over the world who are now living in the UK. We come from many different backgrounds; most of us are refugees or still in the process of seeking asylum.

RefugeeYouth supports us to take leadership and develop our own projects in and across our communities and interests. Together we research the issues that affect our lives and try to take action to make positive change for ourselves and other young people.

We have an office in London but our network includes young people from across the UK. RefugeeYouth has existed for nearly 10 years and over that time over 2000 young people have been involved. Our current active membership includes over 350 young people living in London, Birmingham, Leeds and Newcastle.

We have very serious concerns about the proposed Bill. Our concerns are in particular in relation to the proposals to remove Legal Aid for all immigration matters that are not asylum claims.

Many of us came to the UK without family, under the age of 18. The vast majority of us were refused asylum in the first instance but given discretionary leave to remain.

We are concerned for the following reasons:

1. We don’t have the capacity to offer legal support and advice within RefugeeYouth

RefugeeYouth does not have the expertise or the capacity to represent or advise young people in their legal matters. The work is lengthy, requires detailed knowledge and a level of support that RefugeeYouth is not capable of providing.

RefugeeYouth is a space for young people to come away from their worries and concerns about their legal status.

An increasing amount of young people are bringing their concerns to RefugeeYouth because they do not know where else to turn for advice and support. Due to the limited amount of free legal advice already available for immigration matters, we are having problems trying to find places to signpost people to.

"I had a really good lawyer, but then her firm closed because they stopped doing Legal Aid"

Alpha, 23, Guinea

2. The court systems are intimidating and uncomfortable for young people

A court room is not made to be friendly, it is really intimidating. Having a lawyer makes you feel safe. As young people we feel we don’t have authority anywhere – let alone in a court room.

"I had a really good lawyer and even though she was with me going to court was still one of the scariest things I have ever been through" Fardus, 21, Somalia

"When I just had to say my name in court I was so scared and stuttering and shaking - I can’t even imagine how scary it would be to represent myself" Asha, 24, Somalia

"It is too scary to relive traumatic experiences we have been through in court. Some things are too painful to represent ourselves" Khadeem, 22, Afghanistan

3. Unaccompanied young people rely on the expertise and knowledge of lawyers to represent them

When we come here alone from another country we don’t know the rules and the systems.

Often we come from countries where you can’t criticize the police or the government or any authority, so sometimes we don’t know when it is safe to speak out and tell our story. We need advice and support from our lawyers. When a lawyer is involved matters are taken more seriously.

The proposed cuts to Legal Aid would put a lot of young refugees in danger because we don’t understand the systems.

Lawyers know how to construct an argument in a way that we don’t. Sometimes the things we think are important and feel passionate about are not relevant. We need support to be able to tell our stories and identify what is relevant to our case.

If there are complications or bureaucratic errors we need legal support otherwise our whole case can be put in jeopardy.

"When I don’t even know my rights, how am I going to challenge a decision made about me?"

Jawed, 18, Afghanistan

4. We are concerned about the quality of legal representation from private lawyers

Those of us who have had to find private legal representation have had some bad experiences. We spent a lot of money hoping for adequate legal representation only to find that even basic arguments are not submitted on our behalf.

"My case was refused and my lawyer would not take my case any further. Eventually I found a private law firm who agreed to take on my case and submit a fresh claim. The application she made was not written in good English and she didn’t even include a fresh argument"

Eman, 19, Somalia

We trust in lawyers to be the experts, but if we have to find private representation we are worried that some lawyers are trying to make easy money from us and don’t have a real concern for our case.

5. We do not have the finances to pay for legal representation

Many of us do not have permission to work and so we are not earning money. Many of us are still students at school, college or university. We don’t have family here who can support us. We cannot access loans. We do not know what is a fair amount to pay for legal advice, how to judge the quality of the advice we are getting, or where to complain if we are being exploited.

"If I hadn’t had that Legal Aid I don’t know what I would have done. I didn’t have a penny to pay for a lawyer and if I had to represent myself I would have no idea what evidence to provide"

Abera, 19, Eritrea

From our personal and lived experiences as young people involved in the asylum and immigration system we are absolutely certain that the proposed changes will have a severely damaging impact on us and our peers.

October 2011

Prepared 11th October 2011