March has arrived and with it, finally, the promise of longer, warmer days.
But if the winter seems to have been interminably long for those of us with secure immigration status, access to a regular income, and safe, warm homes, I’m struggling to imagine how it might have been experienced by someone denied such privileges, and so exposed to the capriciousness and hostility of the UK’s immigration system.
Someone, in other words, like ‘Anna’, the single mother of 3 children, one of whom is now 15 and has lived in the UK for all of her life. In 2014, Anna scraped together the money to pay the Home Office’s application fees, securing 30 months leave to remain, which, in line with Home Office policy, was granted without recourse to public funds- meaning that Anna was unable to access Child Benefit, Tax Credits, Income Support, Housing Benefit, or any of the other welfare provision on which single parent families are commonly reliant.
This period of leave to remain expired in January 2017, at which point Anna approached someone she believed to be an immigration lawyer. In fact this person was already known to her, since she had approached him some years previously to help with the submission of an application for British citizenship for her eldest daughter, about which more later.
This individual quoted Anna a fee of just over £3000- covering both the Home Office’s fee costs, and his own ‘professional fee’. This was in addition to the one thousand pounds she had paid this individual a couple of years previously to cover the costs of her daughter’s application for British citizenship, which she was entitled to make having been born and spent the first 10 years of her life in the UK.
Anna had no idea what had happened with this citizenship application. Every time she had asked her ‘lawyer’ for a progress update, he ‘explained’ that he had moved office and so could not locate the case file, but would get back to her. But he never did. We subsequently established that he has never actually made this citizenship application, and the money is unaccounted for. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Anna begged and borrows the money to pay the £3000 demanded by her lawyer to renew her family’s grant of leave to remain in the UK. She is now in considerable debt, even without factoring in the rent arrears which led to the family’s eviction last November.
But that sum still wasn’t enough. Home Office application fees are huge, and are likely to go up again in April. To meet the costs of her family’s renewal application, she actually needed to raise a sum closer to £6500- even before we take into account the ‘lawyer’s’ professional fees. (We don’t know how much that is, since Anna was never given a client care letter.)
So, the ‘lawyer’s’ advice was simply to botch it. He suggested that Anna submit her application without including her eldest daughter’s details on it, since she was eligible for British citizenship- although, of course, he knew full well that no citizenship application had ever been made- and to withhold payment of the ‘health surcharge’ element of the application for everybody but Anna herself.
Unsurprisingly, this meant that the application was simply rejected by the Home Office, with Anna losing the employment rights she did have, which enabled her to put food on the family’s table, and to become regarded along with her children, in Home Office parlance, as an ‘overstayer’- someone with no legal basis to remain in the UK, and at risk of detention or removal from the UK.
These were the circumstances facing Anna and her children when she first came to see us at ASIRT last year. After discussing the case with her, we have helped her to report her unlicensed immigration representative- who, essentially, appears simply to have stolen money from her- to the Office of the Immigration Service Commissioner, who have launched a criminal investigation into his actions.
We have also approached the local authority to carry out an assessment of need under section 17 of the Children Act, ensuring that the family has somewhere to live and some means of subsistence support while work is carried out to help regularise immigration statuses and finally ensure access to public funds. And we have approached a charitable trust in order to raise the £1000 fee now required by the Home Office finally to secure the British citizenship to which Anna’s daughter has been lawfully entitled for the past 5 years of her short life to date. We will then be seeking further leave to remain for Anna and the other two children, arguing for a grant of indefinite leave for the children, rather than leaving them on the conveyor belt of 30 months of lawful status followed by periods of destitution which has created this mess so far.
We will, of course, be doing all of this work free of any cost to Anna, access to justice to all, irrespective of financial means, being a cornerstone of any workable legal system.
Yet the ‘hostile environment’ endured by Ana and her family works precisely to deny such access to justice. There is no legal aid available to people in her circumstances, creating the precise space in which abusive and exploitative unregulated representatives can flourish. Had publicly funded legal representation been available to assist Anna to secure the rights to which she and her children have a demonstrable legal entitlement, she would have had no cause to approach an unlicensed representative for help.
Access to free legal representation, then, is absolutely vital, and ASIRT exists precisely to help people secure such access. This is why, yet again, we will be supporting the Midland Legal Support Trust’s Legal Walk on May 21st, walking to raise much-needed funds for agencies, like ours, working to provide free legal advice and representation to some of the most deprived people in the region.
Please support us if you can.