The Government’s failure to properly manage the legal aid system is having dire consequences for victims of trafficking. This must change immediately.

Young Legal Aid Lawyers recently released a new report entitled ‘A sector at breaking point: Justice denied for victims of trafficking’  detailing the failures of the Government’s handling of the legal aid system and its accessibility for victims of trafficking.

Legal aid is vital for survivors of trafficking, for whom the chance to regularise their immigration status, often through a discretionary leave to remain, represents the beginning of the journey to healing. It unlocks access to housing, benefits and removes the risk of removal.

As the report states:

“legal aid for asylum and immigration matters is essential for victims of trafficking to recover from their trauma. As one respondent put it, “it is everything.””

In a previous CEASE blog post, we highlighted how the lack of access to legal aid within the context of the criminal justice system is leaving victims of sexual exploitation at the mercy of ruthless pimps, punters, and traffickers, and it is no different for those who have been trafficked into the UK and are seeking to rely on protection through immigration law.

The report extensively covers issues such as the lack of availability of specialist-immigration experts who have knowledge of how to deal with trafficking, and other more sector-specific issues such as a dearth of female advisors and lawyers available to work with women who have suffered trauma at the hands of men. One of the most alarming findings, and one that is central to CEASE’s work, is how the lack of access to legal aid is a boon for exploiters who wish to trap victims into further cycles of exploitation, sexual and otherwise.

As the report highlights, if legal aid is not available (or is refused by clients due to issues such as language barriers), the client may pursue private representation, despite the fact that they often cannot afford it. 58% of respondent organisations stated that they have had clients who will attempt to obtain private representation despite not having the funds, and this leaves already-vulnerable victims of trafficking at the risk of others capitalising on their economic insecurity.

For example, one respondent organisation stated:

“…several [of our] clients have ended up in exploitative relationships with other people, even their initial traffickers, to cover legal costs.”

With another organisation stating:

“I have seen Service Users spend all their savings (or compensation they may have received) in order to fund legal representation…. In these circumstances, I have seen survivors get into debt, have sex with men in order to retain a roof over their head…”

What this demonstrates is two-fold: firstly, it highlights the inextricable links between trafficking and prostitution. Often, advocacy groups and those who wish to blanket-decriminalise prostitution go to great lengths to draw distinctions between the two, and are adamant that they should not be conflated. However, the fact that those who are trafficked into the UK often have to resort to prostitution – or are forced into it – in order to fund their legal challenges demonstrates that they are not so easily separated.

Of course, this doesn’t even begin to take into account that under certain legislative models of prostitution, such as legalisation in Germany, trafficking has rocketed in line with “market” expansion due to the removal of criminal sanctions against pimps and punters.

The consequences of the Government neglect of the legal aid system reach far beyond just a lack of funding. Extraordinarily vulnerable individuals who have been trafficked into the country are then forced into situations such as debt bondage and prostitution in order to fund legal action. CEASE UK is calling on the Government to properly and comprehensively fund the entire legal aid system so that vulnerable individuals can:

  • seek criminal justice against their traffickers
  • receive protection from deportation and access to fundamental support
  • avoid sexual exploitation at the hands of criminal profiteers.

It is no good simply paying lip service to the idea that these individuals should not be exploited, now is the time to take tangible and concrete action. Fund the legal aid system and ensure justice and legal representation for all in our society, not just a lucky few.