“What would people do without them? They would have nowhere else to go”

Back in 2013, Legal Aid cuts implemented by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) reduced vastly the scope of civil law Legal Aid, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without access to specialist legal advice.

Newcastle Law Centre faced a dilemma as most of the areas of law we practiced in went out of scope of Legal Aid: a choice between trying to run a very small legal aid contract and potentially face a situation where we would need to subsidise this work, or to try to realign our work to focus on the gaps left behind.

We opted for the latter, and embarked on an ambitious plan to keep Newcastle Law Centre open and find charitable funding to deliver services to people in Newcastle. This approached focused on putting community needs at the heart of what we would deliver and we were incredibly fortunate to gain support from a range of funders, including Northern Rock Foundation, Future Advice Providers Fund, Big Lottery and Tudor Trust.

Tudor Trust funded a particular approach to Community Outreach that we wanted to develop, meaning that we could offer a range of training and development opportunities to groups, organisations and individuals in the area to improve their understanding of issues around the law, equality and human rights with a view to addressing some of the local issues around access to justice that we face in Newcastle and across the North East. Through this programme we have offered hundreds of places on training courses and been able to develop a range of new partnerships that have led to new projects being developed and implemented.

We are delighted to launch an evaluation of our service – carried out by Barefoot Research and Evaluation Services that shows just how valuable our service is.

You can download and read the evaluation here: Newcastle Law Centre Exec Summary Jan 2016

Please contact Jayne if you would like to discuss the work of the Law Centre further or to see a full copy of the evaluation.

 

A Tale of Refugee Family Reunion

You may have heard Salma, talking about her experience of reuniting with her family on BBC Inside Out North East and Cumbria. If you missed it, you can watch again here.

Our Asylum Solicitor, Clare Hurst, blogs about helping Salma through the process, as part of the North East Refugee Law Project.

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Salma arrived in the UK in October 2014.

Salma was the one in her family most at risk because she had received direct threats against her life as a result of her being a doctor and being of Kurdish ethnicity and she believed that if she could get to a place of safety then she would be able to help her family more so than remaining at high risk of persecution in Syria. As a doctor Salma did not want to discriminate against patients on the basis of whether they were with the government or the opposition and by doing her life was threatened. Salma had to pay a people trafficker to help her to flee. The cost of this is very high and she was not able to raise the money for everyone to leave at once and therefore she did what she thought best and travelled to a what she was told would be a safe country with the hope that once there she would be able to arrange for her family to join her.

She was initially taken to Turkey where she stayed for 9 days. During this time she was not permitted to leave the building until she was told it was time for her to travel onward. She was not given the option of choice when it came to the country to which she would be taken. Once Salma was in the UK she claimed asylum, she was interviewed by the Home Office in January and given refugee status in March 2015.

Salma first came to Newcastle Law Centre in April 2015 to seek assistance in relation to family reunion. We provided help to Salma under our charitable funded North East Refugee Law Project – as it is incredibly difficult to get Legal Aid for Family Reunion applications. Through a series of appointments we prepared a family reunion application including detailed witness statement for her and this was submitted on 5th June at the visa application centre in Istanbul after the documents were couriered to Turkey. We received a notification on 23rd June that a decision had been made but at this stage we are not informed of the actual outcome until the documents are collected from the visa application centre in the country of origin. On collecting the documents Salma’s husband informed her of the refusal and forwarded copies to me.

The main reasons for the refusal were that that

  1. the family’s documents had been reissued recently (therefore not contemporaneous evidence);
  2. they (husband and three children) had only been issued with passports after Salma had left Syria and
  3. there had been no mention of them in Salma’s screening interview or SEF interview (part of the asylum process).

Entry clearance decisions can be poor. This one was something else. For example, the interview records not only detail that Salma is married with three daughters but mentioned them on practically every page of the interviews, totally at odds with the reasons for refusal given by the Home Office.

Salma talks constantly about her family so to have her maternity doubted in such a way was devastating for her. The passports were emergency passports (only valid for a year) and this was the quickest way to obtain travel documentation and the birth certificates etc. were only reissued because the previous ones had been destroyed. The Home Office had already received copies of these documents a part of Salma’s application and had not raised any concerns at all about their authenticity.

The Entry Clearance Officer decided that the children could not be confirmed as hers. (In these circumstances the Entry Clearance posts have the power to order DNA tests to be performed but this is rare in practice and should in any event only be used as a last resort in the absence of any other evidence).

At this point there were two options, appeal or make a fresh application. We contacted Salma’s MP and contacted the Embassy in Istanbul to complain about the decision whilst we considered the options and when the Embassy didn’t respond and being mindful of the delays currently being encountered in the listings of appeals (some being listed for spring 2016 onwards) we therefore settled on a fresh application.

Salma provided further evidence and we obtained supporting letters from her GP and the Red Cross. We drafted a further statement to detail just how badly the first decision had impacted on Salma and I wrote detailed legal representations outlining the evidence and defects in the previous decision. Again we assisted with the cost of sending this to Turkey and the application was submitted on 28th August.

Salma was obviously inconsolable. This was a major setback for her. A decision was finally made on 30th Sept and confirmed as positive on 2nd October.

This was not the end of the drama as due to passports expiring in October, they we unable to wait until the British Red Cross arranged tickets. Thankfully another member of the Syrian community stepped up to fund the tickets. Someone did that for them so they said it was ‘paying it forward’. The family arrived on 11th October only a few days before their passports expired.

We will try to continue to assist other refugees with applications for Family Reunion a part of the North Eat Refugee Law Project (NERLP) until our funding comes to an end next year in May. We are hoping to find other funding to continue this work as we see it a still being in great need and in light of current events this need is unlikely to abate any time soon.

For further information about the Family Reunion Process and the North East Refugee Law Project please see the special page on our website: https://www.newcastlelawcentre.co.uk/projects/refugee-family-reunion.

 

North East Refugee Law Project – Evaluation

We are delighted to publish the Independent Evaluation of the North East Refugee Law Project.

NERLP is a project that offers legal advice to asylum seekers and refugees in the North East of England who are unable to obtain legal aid. It is a partnership between Newcastle Law Centre and Justice First Ltd.

Advice can cover:

  • Submitting a fresh claim
  • Submitting and preparing an appeal
  • Family Reunion Applications
  • Human Rights Applications

This is a unique project and we are delighted to receive such a positive evaluation.

The Executive Summary and Case Studies report can be downloaded (NERLP Evaluation-web) and hard copies are also available.

Please contact Jayne if you would like either a hard copy of the case studies, or a copy of the report in full.