While attention was focussed elsewhere, the House of Commons Public Bill Committee dealing with the legal aid bill held its first session of detailed scrutiny of the bill. The transcript of the session is here.
One significant shift – the first major concession from the government since the bill was published – was to agree to bring domestic violence cases back into the scope of immigration. This is a very welcome step, as it was one of the parts of the bill that was causing greatest concern. Hopefully other concessions will follow.
This is the relevant part of the debate:
Ben Gummer: My hon. Friend mentioned the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston. She discussed the division between immigration and asylum cases, and I mentioned in my submission that Government Members are concerned about some related issues. Although asylum will remain in scope and non-detention immigration will be taken out of scope, is there not a possible problem with people suffering domestic violence who are involved in an immigration case automatically being taken out of scope? Would it be possible for the Government to review that area, as they have done with domestic violence elsewhere in the Bill?
Mr Djanogly: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The matter of including cases brought under the immigration domestic violence rule in the scope of civil legal aid was raised a great deal during the consultation, and we considered the point carefully. Although we accepted that the applicants in such cases were vulnerable, we did not think, on balance, that legal aid was required, essentially because the applications, similar to other immigrant applications, were paper-based. We recognised that people might need assistance with obtaining the required documentary evidence, but we considered that such assistance need not be specialist legal assistance funded by legal aid.
After further consideration, however, we accept that such cases are unusual. There is a real risk that, without legal aid, people will stay trapped in abusive relationships out of fear of jeopardising their immigration status. The type of trauma that they might have suffered will often make it difficult to cope with such applications. We also appreciate that people apply under great pressure of time, and access to a properly designated immigration adviser is a factor. We intend to table a Government amendment to bring such cases into scope at a later stage.
Our analysis of the immigration proposals can be found here.