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7 January 2019

Pre-action letters: enabling the voluntary sector to combat the lack of legal aid solicitors

Kat Lorenz & Polly Glynn
Kat Lorenz (Asylum Support Appeals Project) and Polly Glynn (Deighton Pierce Glynn) explain how training voluntary sector advisors to prepare pre-action letters is helping to resolve Home Office delays.
Strengthening Civil Society

Asylum-seekers are amongst the most socially excluded in the UK. Not allowed to work or access mainstream benefits, many people arrive in the UK having fled for their lives at short notice with absolutely nothing – no friends or family to support them, no money or method of obtaining any.

The support system for asylum-seekers is set at a lower level than for British people (just over £5 per day) and run by the Home Office. People applying for it must show they are destitute. Accommodation is allocated on a ‘no choice basis’ around the UK. The application process is complex and our research found that even where someone is desperately in need of support, it is often wrongly refused.

The Asylum Support Appeals Project (ASAP) was set up to help people appeal against such refusals, as there is no legal aid available. Last year our representation ensured that hundreds of people and their families were not made destitute, winning support for 69% of appellants.

However, many asylum-seekers and other migrants find themselves destitute or street homeless due to severe delays in decision-making, or delays in the provision of accommodation. During this time many are homeless, increasingly desperate and vulnerable to exploitation. The only way to challenge this delay is through a judicial review, but it is difficult to find solicitors to take asylum support cases on. In the majority of cases, when a formal pre-action letter (PAP) is written, the case is conceded and the unlawful decision reversed.

The PAP project empowers front line organisations to be able to draft these formal pre-action letters for challenges around homelessness and destitution. The Baring Foundation funds this partnership project between ASAP and Deighton Pierce Glynn (DPG), a legal firm with expertise in public law. Using ASAP’s e-learning platform, DPG developed a series of e-learning modules for the voluntary sector, teaching advisors the basics of public law, and how to write a PAP. Advisors from organisations around the UK can access these e-learning modules from their offices, in their own time, as suits their own work pressures.

Once an advisor has completed the e learning they can draft PAPs – each letter is checked by a DPG solicitor before being sent out. A website containing details of the scheme and a short film about the project can be found here.

The results are astounding: in the first year of the project, 67% of the 89 PAPs led to a positive outcome, and the delay was resolved in all but one case. Where the case was not resolved, the fact that it was ready for litigation meant that solicitors were more likely to take it on. Many front line advisors reported an increased sense of empowerment on behalf of their very vulnerable clients, as the PAP letters they wrote had an effect in triggering a support decision.

Writing PAPs does take time, as does skilling up staff or volunteers. However, organisations have found that this is no more than the time spent chasing the Home Office for a decision, and it has a much better result for destitute asylum-seekers. It increases voluntary organisations’ confidence in using human rights law, and enables systemic issues to be spotted more easily, freeing up solicitors’ time to spend on litigation.

This model of empowering front-line organisations with legal tools seems easily scalable, and may be replicable in other areas of public law including social security challenges, healthcare and homelessness. As legal aid is increasingly restricted, this approach may help increase access to legal remedies for those desperately in need of them.

Kat Lorenz is the Director of the Asylum Support Appeals Project. Polly Glynn is a founding partner at Deighton Pierce Glynn.