By Ian Dunt
Campaigner from a range of different charities and pressure groups have united to defend the UK's leading asylum legal charity from closure.
Amnesty International, Liberty and Barnardos were among the groups writing to the justice and home secretaries today, seeking assurances about the future of Refugee and Migrant Justice (RMJ), which provides free legal advice and representation to asylum seekers and other vulnerable migrants.
Changes made to legal aid payments by the Labour government means payments for legal aid work only arrives once decisions are made, resulting in a delay of up to two years before costs are reimbursed.
Victims of trafficking and 900 unaccompanied children will be among the 10,000 vulnerable people who will be left without legal representation unless the UK's leading asylum legal charity is saved from closure.
The government is understood to want to stick with the system because it underpins a procurement exercise undertaken by the previous government which is yet to be completed.
"It would be a tragedy if RMJ were allowed to go under because of bureaucratic rules," the letter reads.
"No charity can be expected to wait six months or more for the money it is owed, and no private sector organisation will be able to replace RMJ's longstanding commitment to those with the greatest needs."
The closure of the charity would instantly deprive 10,000 individsulas of a lawyer, campaigners argued, and slow down the process of asylum decisions.
"Lives will be put at risk and there are likely to be many more miscarriages of justice - which are already common in our asylum system," the letter continues.
In a separate statement, Roland Schilling, the UK representative of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), said: "The UN Refugee Agency has raised its deep concern to the government if legal aid to the persons in need of protection is not anymore provided by specialised and highly professional organisations like RMJ.
"A discontinuation of these services would severely damage the effectiveness and fairness of the asylum system in the country."
Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: "In the UK, asylum seekers can be indefinitely detained with limited access to legal advice and support.
"As some of the most vulnerable members of our society, justice can often be hard to find - the loss of this vital organisation can only make things worse."
The letter was also signed by the Refugee Council, Justice, Asylum Aid and several members of the House of Lords.
Open letter on the RMJ: Full text
Dear justice and home secretaries,
Over many years, Refugee and Migrant Justice (RMJ) has provided essential legal advice and representation to 110,000 asylum seekers and victims of trafficking, including many children. Many of the charity's clients have been deprived of their freedom in this country through detention or wrongful imprisonment, and without RMJ's help they would have faced torture or death if forced to go home.
Sadly, we have become aware that this pioneering charity is at risk of closure simply because of delays in legal aid payments for work already done. It would be a tragedy if RMJ were allowed to go under because of bureaucratic rules. No charity can be expected to wait six months or more for the money it is owed, and no private sector organisation will be able to replace RMJ's longstanding commitment to those with the greatest needs.
If RMJ has to close, 10,000 individuals will immediately be left without a lawyer. The government has said it wants to speed up asylum decisions, but closing RMJ would be a huge backward step. Many asylum seekers will be unable to access good quality legal support, or any support at all. Lives will be put at risk and there are likely to be many more miscarriages of justice - which are already common in our asylum system. This would also add to the UK Border Agency's enormous backlog, as the cases of existing clients would have to be suspended while new lawyers are found.
RMJ is not asking for more money, just what it is owed. The government's decision to review legal aid is the perfect opportunity to cut out inefficiency so that good quality providers like RMJ can be saved.
Lord Avebury, House of Lords
Keith Best, Director of Medical Foundation
Julie Bishop, Chief Executive of the Law Centres Federation
Donna Covey, Chief Executive of Refugee Council
Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty
Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind
Guy Goodwin-Gill, Fellow All Souls, Oxford
David Harker, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice Bureaux
Baroness Howe, House of Lords
Professor Francesca Klug, London School of Economics
Martin Narey, Chief Executive of Barnado's
Professor Sir Nigel Rodley
Jan Shaw, Amnesty International UK Refugee Programme Director
The Earl of Sandwich, House of Lords
Roger Smith, Director of Justice
Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury
Maurice Wren, Director, Asylum Aid