New measures to curb 'abuse' of asylum legal aid

New measures aimed at cutting out abuses of the asylum legal aid system could save the taxpayer around £30 million next year, the government has claimed.

The changes, unveiled today by Constitutional Affairs minister Lord Falconer, include an accreditation scheme for lawyers, a unique file number for asylum seekers and a reduction in the amount of legally-aided advice offered to applicants.

The asylum legal aid budget has risen from £81.3 million in 2000-2001 to £129.7 million in 2001-2002 and £174.2 million in 2002-2003. Assuming that there is no major change in the number of asylum seekers the government expects these measures will save the taxpayer around £30 million in 2004-2005.

Lord Falconer said: "It's time to stop the untargeted expenditure on legal aid for asylum cases. A combination of unscrupulous legal advisors and people desperate to stay in this country by whatever means necessary have brought the system into disrepute.

"While we have no wish to penalise those genuinely seeking asylum we have a duty to taxpayers to cut out the current abuses of the system."

Legal advisors will have to meet stringent quality tests under an accreditation scheme to be administered by the Legal Services Commission (LSC). Each asylum seeker will be given a unique file number so the LSC can monitor claims for each individual client, removing duplication of legal aid provision.

Payment of legal aid will not exceed five hours for the initial advice stage. A case will be granted an extension by the LSC "only if it is genuine and complex and further work is reasonable and necessary".

No legal aid will be spent on an appeal unless the LSC has certified that the case merits being pursued. Financial thresholds will be set for meritorious cases depending on the facts of the case, and the experience and previous outcomes of the firm providing the advice, the government said.

Lord Falconer said: "The accreditation scheme will help ensure the quality of lawyers and organisations providing legally-aided asylum advice. The Unique File Number will enable advice limits for individual cases to be enforced and any duplication of work to be cut out.

"We think the changes are fair and balanced and go a long way to reforming a system which currently favours those pursuing cases they know they have no chance of winning."


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