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The government is considering increasing legal aid fees for lawyers working on deportation cases by 15 per cent, as it seeks to attract solicitors to take on such cases and tackle the UK’s huge backlog in asylum claims.
The Home Office and Ministry of Justice opened a consultation last week on the legal fees paid for work on removal orders as part of the illegal migration bill, noting the legislation “introduces additional demand for legal aid because of the number of individuals captured by the bill and timescales for removal”.
The bill, which will bar from claiming asylum almost anyone entering Britain without prior permission, is facing strong cross-party opposition in the House of Lords. Under the proposals, those selected for removal to third countries will be given only eight days to make a claim.
The Home Office has proposed that lawyers working on deportation cases be paid 15 per cent more than the existing hourly rate for immigration work, which is set at roughly £52 per hour in London and £47 outside of London.
It also outlined plans to conduct a review of new fees for such cases within two years of them being implemented.
“We believe that a fee increase of up to a 15 per cent would be an adequate uplift to incentivise legal aid providers to take on [illegal migration bill] work,” the government wrote in its consultation document.
“This higher rate strikes a balance between managing costs for taxpayers and ensuring sufficient capacity among providers to enable individuals facing removal to have access to legal aid.”
The move comes amid a fierce debate over the ethics and legality of the government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda to have their applications processed.
In a setback for prime minister Rishi Sunak, who has made stopping small boat crossings into the UK a priority, the Court of Appeal last week ruled that the government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda is unlawful.
It found that because of flaws in Rwanda’s asylum system the county could not be considered safe.
Richard Miller, head of justice at the Law Society, which represents lawyers in England and Wales, said the 15 per cent pay rise would likely do little to attract solicitors to the poorly paid and politically-divisive work given long-term structural issues around legal aid funding.
The government “needs to make the sector more economically viable, not just this work”, he said, noting that legal aid fees had not increased since the 1990s.
If asylum seekers are unable to access legal advice it could leave the government’s removal notices open to challenge in the courts, Miller added.
At the end of March 2023, there were 133,607 asylum applications awaiting a Home Office decision and nearly three quarters of the outstanding claims had been waiting more than six months, according to data from the Law Society.
The prime minister is meanwhile facing intense pressure from the right flank of his government to reduce legal migration into the UK.
A group of 25 Conservative MPs who gained their seats in 2017 and 2019 unveiled a 12-point plan on Monday to reduce net immigration by two-thirds, after it rose from 270,000 in 2019 to over 600,000 last year.
The group proposed a number of measures to reduce inflows, including closing a scheme to allow care workers to join the UK workforce and stopping overseas students from staying in Britain for up to two years after graduation and from bringing dependants with them.
A government spokesperson said it had recently introduced the toughest ever action to reduce migration, removing the right for most international students to bring family members.