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Lions Led By Donkeys?


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The tragic demise of Refugee and Migrant Justice, formerly known as the Refugee Legal Centre, leaves a gaping and unfillable void in the immigration sector. With its higher than average success rate and top notch training and nurturing programme for asylum lawyers, it is simply irreplaceable.

What happened? I start by saying I have no insider information.

The managers claim it was a cash flow problem caused by the delayed payment system of the Legal Services Commission, introduced to massage the LSC’s own books and condemned by the National Audit Office. For a charity with no facility to borrow and no private work with which to cross subsidise — and therefore no way to bridge the gap between incurring the costs and receiving the payment — cash flow no doubt was the immediate trigger for the collapse.

Many staff, and certainly the trade union, blame the managers, believing it to be a case of financial incompetence. The same staff were very resistant to attempts to streamline the business or to do more billable hours, though, and on their own analysis must therefore logically share the blame.

Both explanations seem incomplete and to my mind cheapen the death of RLC, as I still prefer to think of it. I suspect what really happened was far more fundamental and far more damning for the legal aid system that was imposed by the last Government.

RLC was, in common with all immigration legal aid providers, paid a fixed fee for each case it undertook. The same funding applied to for-profit and not-for-profit organisations. Under such a system it is obvious that an organisation will profit, in the sense of generating excess cash, if it can do as little work as possible on each case, thereby incurring less staffing costs in ‘processing’ the client (I am unwilling to dignify the work done by the large, private, for-profit factory firms that do well from this system with the word ‘represent’). The firms that play the legal aid system well pocket plenty of government cash for their proprietors, but routinely do a terrible job on their client’s cases.

RLC staff were too well trained. They were too committed to their clients. They were not willing to take shortcuts. They were not willing to do the minimum, or less than the minimum. In short, they did too much work on each case. The organisation was doomed by its excellence.

I only wish that this was the message that had been sent by the trustees and managers when the ship went down, rather than the tawdry moans about cash flow. It certainly made the managers sound incompetent, even if this was not true. Worst of all, it gave the Government an easy way out, by pointing out that everyone else was coping.

Barry Stoyle, the founder and long serving Chief Executive of RLC, was unpopular with staff by the time he seems to have been ditched by the RLC trustees in 2007 or so. He preferred a one-office policy and wanted to keep the organisation small. Everyone else, notably IAS, was expanding at the time, and the LSC was merrily dishing out legal aid contracts like there was no tomorrow. Having negotiated the original funding that freed RLC from the imploding and now defunct UKIAS,  he was always worried about long term funding. How right he was, all along. All is forgiven, Barry.

Interested in refugee law? You might like Colin's book, imaginatively called "Refugee Law" and published by Bristol University Press.

Communicating important legal concepts in an approachable way, this is an essential guide for students, lawyers and non-specialists alike.

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The Free Movement blog was founded in 2007 by Colin Yeo, a barrister at Garden Court Chambers specialising in immigration law. The blog provides updates and commentary on immigration and asylum law by a variety of authors.


9 Responses

  1. FM – Not a bad assessment for a non-financial man.
    You had cashflow and profitability in there – did you take A level Economics or Accounting at sixth form?

    I am reminded of a saying by an entrepreneur with years of wisdom – Cash is vanity, profit is sanity.

    Growth has always been a cashflow risking exercise for businesses, so in that respect I agree that Barry was smarter than his critics.

  2. I also heard that they kept on working in the same way as before but under the new fixed fee system.
    Also worth repeating that the system was introduced by the Labour Govt spinelessly pandering to the anti-immigration lobby. They knew what they were doing. Bastards.

  3. very sad and such a shame…

    i love this blog.

    there’s always the story of current / significant / events and another relevant info in that.

    thank you FM.

  4. Great analysis. I’m worried about IAS too, since we need a national organisation to represent clients and they’ve been losing money. Do you think things will go better for them?

    1. I don’t know. IAS don’t have quite the same reputation as RLC for doing really excellent asylum work and they also do a lot of more straightforward immigration cases which might be easier to do adequately within the funding constraints. They also were starting to do some private work, which would help, although I don’t know how far they have gone with this.

      In the interests of (relative) transparency, I’ve worked for both organisations, but that was a few years ago now.

    2. The demise of the RLC is sad but let’s be honest; the fact that some firms do as little as possible to ‘process’ each case now balances up against the poor Presenting Officers who do the minimum preparation due to the number of cases they have to prepare for in, sometimes, a matter of minutes.

      Equality of arms- both advocates as poorly prepared as each other!

  5. Sorry, guys, you are obviously lawyers and not business people. The saying is ‘Turnover is vanity, profit is sanity and cash flow is reality’. Cash is VERY important in a business and so is profit – to expand the business or give a dividend to the shareholders, so perhaps not so applicable here? Turnover, i.e. total income, is often meaningless. I also find this blog interesting and useful. (I am a volunteer for a small refugee project.)

  6. Freemovement well done to all the staff and mangement.keep up the good work you guys are excellent.