CSAN (Caritas Social Action Network), the social action arm of the Catholic Church, has expressed its strong concerns that proposed changes to the legal aid system could see victims of trafficking and domestic violence left without any support or recourse to justice in an open letter to the Secretary of State for Justice, Rt Hon Chris Grayling MP.
The letter has been signed by Helen O’Brien, Chief Executive of CSAN; Sr Lynda Dearlove, founder and Director of Women@the Well; Louise Zanre, Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service UK (JRS UK) and Rt Rev Patrick Lynch, auxiliary Bishop for the Archdiocese of Southwark and Chair of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales’ Office for Migration Policy.
CSAN comprises 41 member charities and organisations, many of whom work with refugees, individuals who have experienced domestic abuse and victims of human trafficking.
Chief Executive of CSAN, Helen O’Brien said:
“These proposals are deeply concerning and if they go ahead in their current form we have real concerns that vulnerable individuals, including overseas residents trapped in relationships with a violent partner and victims of human trafficking could be left unable to access any legal representation.
“Human trafficking and domestic abuse are truly horrific crimes. Victims are often already reticent about speaking out and seeking support. We have genuine concerns that any restriction of legal aid in such cases may mean that these abuses will go unreported and that perpetrators of these crimes will not be brought to justice”
“Last year, the Government acknowledged the particularly vulnerable position of victims of domestic violence and trafficking by exempting them from the legal aid reductions within the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act. We urge the Government to reaffirm this exemption in any further changes to the legal aid system. To renege on this commitment now would be a dereliction of the Government’s duty to ensure that vulnerable individuals are protected and undermine the right to representation, which forms the very basis of our legal system”.
Under the proposals within the Transforming legal aid: delivering a more credible and efficient system consultation, a ‘dual residency criteria’ will operate for access to legal aid. This means that a person would need to show that they are (a) lawfully resident in the UK and (b) have been lawfully resident in the UK for twelve consecutive months. However whilst the proposals exempt asylum seekers and armed force personnel from these provisions, the document fails to mention victims of human trafficking or domestic abuse. This has prompted concern from CSAN that these vulnerable individuals, who are primarily although not exclusively women, could be left without any legal representation.
Many of CSAN’s member charities, including the Jesuit Refugee Service, Women@theWell and Anawim, work with women who have been victims of trafficking and/or domestic abuse.
Women@the Well is a women-only drop-in centre in Kings Cross dedicated to supporting women with a complex range of needs relating to: street based prostitution, offending & anti-social behaviour, problematic drug and alcohol abuse, rough sleeping and trafficking. Women@the Well is a member of CSAN.
The Jesuit Refugee Service UK (JRS UK) is one of CSAN’s member charities. JRS UK accompanies refugees and forced migrants, serving them as companions and advocating their cause. The JRS UK has a particular concern for those who are detained under the immigration rules or who are left destitute in the UK. This work is carried out in the spirit of mutual respect, dignity and solidarity with the refugees and forced migrants, and in collaboration with other organisations.