Increasing access to justice for refugees
Sam Harris, Managing Associate of Clifford Chance's Refugee Support Scheme, discusses the scheme's important work assisting individuals seeking asylum in the UK.
Despite the common perception that refugees arriving in the UK are handed the world on a plate, refugees unfortunately often suffer at the hands of an inefficient, lengthy and complicated asylum system. In addition, the various cuts to legal aid have significantly impacted refugees' access to legal services and, therefore, justice. Legal aid is still available for asylum claims but solicitors are overstretched and often do not have the resources to take on more time-intensive cases. As a result, refugees frequently struggle to retain their solicitor in circumstances where they need to appeal an adverse decision. Add to this the fact that over 25% of initial Home Office refusals of asylum claims are overturned on appeal by the Immigration Tribunal, and a picture emerges of a hostile environment in which there are significant barriers to asylum seekers securing justice and refugee status.
Clifford Chance's Refugee Support Scheme aims to address some of these issues by producing reports containing desk-based research to support refugees' claims about their home country. The reports draw on evidence from international NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as local and international press reports, to describe the prevalence of the particular persecution faced by the refugee. Clifford Chance generally undertakes reports specific to the individual's claim but has also produced topic guides which provide general information regarding the most common countries and types of persecution. The scheme is staffed by Clifford Chance lawyers and trainees, as well as volunteers from our clients.
We work with a number of NGOs around the UK and have provided over 60 research reports to date. Feedback from our clients suggests that the scheme is an important resource for pro bono and legal aid immigration solicitors and that it has improved the capacity and quality of work in a number of frontline organisations. It can sometimes be difficult to measure the success of pro bono initiatives but the impact of the Refugee Support Scheme seems clear to our clients; we have been told on numerous occasions that the reports were instrumental in either achieving a positive decision for a refugee or encouraging a solicitor to take on a refugee's case.
The scheme also has many positive benefits for the volunteers undertaking the work. It is worthwhile, engaging and provides volunteers with an opportunity to practise important legal skills. We asked Shannon Burke, a trainee solicitor who has been working on the project since November 2020, why she has got involved in the scheme. Shannon said:
"[It] offers a chance to do some really interesting research into often quite specific topics and I've enjoyed learning about political or socio-cultural circumstances in countries that I otherwise knew little about. For me, one of the best things about the project is that our work can be genuinely helpful for someone's claim. It's really rewarding to see that the reports can have a tangible impact, such as clients being able to access legal aid through new information we've uncovered."
We have been delighted with the impact of the Refugee Support Scheme to date, both for our clients and the lawyers working on the reports. We hope the scheme can build on its strong foundations and, with that in mind, there are a number of exciting developments in the pipeline so watch this space!