UK government confirms victims of modern slavery entitled to free legal advice

The UK government has confirmed that all victims of modern slavery can get free legal advice about their status as a victim and their right to remain in the UK, after conceding a judicial review government lawyers had been planning to bring that would have contested this.

Hope for Justice works closely with specialist legal charity ATLEU, which has been representing a victim known as LL. She had been told by the Legal Aid Agency (an executive agency sponsored by the Ministry of Justice) that she was not entitled to legal aid during the identification process and was therefore denied access to advice on this process and her right to remain in the UK. Consequently, she faced severe anxiety and uncertainty about her future, without access to this important support.

This week, the government changed its decision and accepted that LL, and all victims of modern slavery with an initial positive reasonable grounds, are entitled to free legal advice. This means LL’s lawyers can continue to work with her to ensure she receives proper representation and support in the UK.

Hope for Justice provided witness evidence in this case due to its importance for all victims.

Phillipa RobertsHope for Justice Director of Legal Policy, Phillipa Roberts, praised ATLEU for its work on this case and added: “Lawyers shouldn’t have to fight for justice on legal aid to be able to provide legal advice and representation to achieve justice for victims, especially when victims of trafficking have clear entitlements to free legal advice in law.

“Hope for Justice is pleased that the government has confirmed entitlement to legal aid on this case. We hope this creates easier access to legally aided advice on all matters for the victims we work with in the future.”

Our experience at Hope for Justice is that access to legal aid and early legal advice is essential for victims to understand often complex processes and rights. Advice on right to remain in the UK is often critical to the ability of victims to access important wider entitlements, including housing and welfare support. This can stabilise a victim’s position and create a climate for recovery. In turn, this allows victims to make other decisions such as whether to cooperate with a police investigation and/or pursue civil compensation which are critical to perpetrator accountability.

Early, free legal advice can also prevent destitution and homelessness, and reduces the risk of re-trafficking, deportation and removal.

Hope for Justice thinks that this case demonstrates the inconsistent approach being taken by the Legal Aid Agency to the entitlement of victims to free legal advice even though this is very clear in UK law.  The UK has also made commitments in international law to provide victims with free legal advice without delay.

The experience of our Advocacy team is that there is widespread confusion regarding eligibility for legal aid. We have repeatedly seen the Legal Aid Agency initially deny legal aid for victims, with these decisions having to be appealed (or, as in this case, leading to a judicial review application i.e. a legal challenge having to be made).

Not only is this extra unnecessary work for hard-pressed legal aid lawyers, it also causes immense frustration and anxiety for the victim. Delayed legal advice can also lead to justice being denied for that person.

More commentary on this case can be found in this article by investigative reporter Jane Bradley of Buzzfeed.