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Ministerial statement on IAS


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The minister with responsibility for legal aid, Jonathan Djanogly MP, has made a statement (reproduced below) on the Immigration Advisory Service going into administration. Once again, the emphasis is on transfer of files to new providers rather than on any attempt to salvage parts of the organisation. It looks like a slender hope, but it might be conceivable that those ‘new’ providers could be new entities created out of the ashes of IAS.

It does seem that a recent audit by the Legal Services Commission went very badly for the organisation, or at least some offices within it. The LSC is said to be seeking to recoup several millions of pounds of over or misclaimed work. Ministers and the LSC can be expected to assert there is nothing wrong with the legal aid system, despite the closure of RMJ a year ago and Ken Clarke recently announcing that there would be a £20 million fund created to keep law centres going because the Government now accepts that they cannot possibly survive in the new climate. If the information fed to Djanogly is true, though, that must be a LOT of files where no evidence of means was retained or something else rather basic went wrong.

It does not sound as if IAS was actually insolvent, it sounds more like the trustees threw up their hands in despair when the contract compliance issues came to light in the audit. Being a trustee is a thankless task, but to close an organisation responsible for thousands of ongoing legal cases on behalf of highly vulnerable individuals in such an dramatic fashion with no prior plans for reallocation of files looks from the outside like a pretty questionable decision.

12 July 2011 : Column 18WS

Immigration Advisory Service

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): It is with regret that the trustees of the Immigration Advisory Service (IAS) decided that the organisation had to enter into administration on Friday 8 July 2011.

This is clearly a sad situation for all involved. The Legal Services Commission (LSC) has worked closely with IAS over the last few years and IAS has received substantial support to help them manage their cash flow and run its business within the LSC’s contracted payment system. When LSC took over responsibility in 2004 for funding IAS, the LSC agreed to more favourable transitional arrangements with IAS than were agreed with other not-for-profit organisations.

However, a recent contract compliance audit by the Legal Services Commission, has provisionally identified that a material proportion (amounting to several millions of pounds) of the £15 million paid annually to IAS is over or misclaimed work. This is often where the work carried out does not have appropriate documentation to prove its validity, most commonly where there is a lack of evidence confirming clients’ eligibility. As well as this, work was conducted which was not within the scope of public funding. The LSC, as a responsible public body, is rightly seeking to recoup this money. It is of course crucial that the Government achieve value for public money and the LSC must be able to demonstrate to the Comptroller and Auditor General that it is in control of the funds it administers and takes appropriate action where the terms of its contracts are not complied with.

There have been extensive efforts on the parts of both IAS and the LSC to negotiate a solution to the current financial position, but the scale of the debt, coupled with projected income levels, has led the trustees to conclude that placing the organisation in administration is a necessary step. The current position reflects the company’s past financial management and claims irregularities and is not a direct consequence of the proposed legal aid reforms, not least because these reforms have yet to be implemented.

The primary concern for the Government and the LSC is now to ensure clients of IAS continue to get the help they need. The LSC expects that the administration of IAS will allow a managed close down process of IAS’s activities and an orderly transfer of clients to new providers. Provisional arrangements have been made to ensure that any emergency cases are dealt with speedily, meanwhile the LSC is identifying alternative advice provision in the areas affected and arrangements for case transfer will follow as soon as possible.

There is a significant long-term interest in this work from other providers, both not for profit organisations and private solicitor firms. The LSC ran a tender round for new immigration and asylum contracts in October last year and there was an increase in the number of offices that applied to do the work and bids for more than double the amount of cases that were available. All immigration and asylum providers are expected to meet the same high-quality standards which include compulsory accreditation schemes for all advisers and supervisors, and as such I believe the interests of the clients being transferred will be protected.

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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.


One Response

  1. Maybe too long for a comment but maybe deserves a post?

    After the crash – what next after IAS goes into administration?

    (Ex-IAS employee who was made redundant along with hundreds of others on Monday).

    IAS went into administration at 4.30pm on Friday 8 July. The Board of Trustees in a message to staff on Monday said:
    ‘Ever since the Government’s announcement on Legal Aid, together with our advisors, we have been in discussions with the Legal Services Commission at the highest level about securing a long term viable future for IAS. With a 10% reduction in fees and the removal from scope of most immigration this was always going to be a formidable task.’

    This is fundamental. The statement by the minister Jonathon Djanogly talked of ‘misclaimed work’. This boils down to a lack of ‘appropriate documentation’ to show a person’s income is low enough for them to get Legal Aid. This issue could have been addressed without administration but it is highlighted now in order to avoid the real cause: it was the decision by the government to reduce fees by 10% and to remove Legal Aid from immigration work which precipitated the slide into administration. The decision of the Legal Services Commission to pretend that the decision was that of IAS alone is dishonest. Worse, to use the term ‘claims irregularities’ in the first press release meant that the public were misled to believe that there had been some kind of dishonesty. It is difficult to imagine this spin was accidental.

    Now the government justifies itself by invoking ‘value for public money’. Yet since RMJ (the charity Refugee and Migrant Justice) went into administration last year, it has cost the taxpayer over £3.6m to wind up. The IAS is bigger, the crash was steeper and the costs will be higher.

    Two groups of people have been hit hard. First of all the staff. This includes not only lawyers but receptionists, secretaries and paralegals, the vast majority women, whose pay scales do not stray above £20,000 and who regularly work excessive hours and do unpaid work because they were committed to helping those who are vulnerable and vilified. To be met on Monday morning by security staff hired by the administrators, to be escorted back to buildings only to collect personal belongings, this was their reward. The majority were made redundant on Monday and it is entirely unclear on what basis they were chosen. The case for the GMB union to take a collective unfair dismissal case is even stronger than it was with Refugee and Migrant Justice. A process which took weeks in RMJ was rushed through over the weekend at IAS.

    But an even worse impact has been felt by the clients. In a shocking act of dishonesty the government claims:
    The primary concern for the Government and the LSC is now to ensure clients of IAS continue to get the help they need. The LSC expects that the administration of IAS will allow a managed close down process of IAS’s activities and an orderly transfer of clients to new providers. Provisional arrangements have been made to ensure that any emergency cases are dealt with speedily, meanwhile the LSC is identifying alternative advice provision in the areas affected and arrangements for case transfer will follow as soon as possible.
    In most offices, caseworkers left on Friday and their files have lain untouched for two days. The skeleton staff who have been retained in a handful of offices have been told they can only do urgent work where their own client’s interests are prejudiced. But they have been told they cannot refer even their own clients to other organisations (some will no doubt do it anyway). They are not allowed to meet with clients. Interpreters are of course forbidden by the Administrators.

    But those clients whose caseworkers were made redundant are in an even worse position. All the staff at the Central London Office were made redundant. Most in the regional offices were. What happens to their clients? How is it possible to identify urgent cases when the caseworkers have been kicked out the door? Those files have been abandoned for 2 days. Will it be 2 weeks? 2 months?

    Letters were sent by the Administrators to the Courts and Tribunals to inform them that IAS had gone into administration but not all appeals are being adjourned. Some Immigration Judges are persuading appellants who were represented by IAS but whose lawyer is not allowed to turn up at court, that it is better for their case to go ahead without a representative.

    All this makes a mockery of the public line that an orderly transfer of cases is underway. It is not. Frantic phone calls behind the scenes to this or that firm of solicitors is nothing in this deluge.

    What needs to be done?
    IAS clients need support and help. The remaining staff in IAS simply cannot or are not allowed to do most of what needs to be done. Many staff wanted to carry on working on Monday keeping as much continuity of representation as possible but the mass redundancies put a stop to any proper functioning of the offices. There is a role for legal and community organisations to assist clients who can find an alternative lawyer to actually get their files and take them to the new representatives.

    There is also a role for community organisations to help clients get hearings adjourned and help them take other actions to prevent them being harmed by the enforced withdrawal of their representatives.

    But most of all, the LSC must be forced by political pressure to come clean about what is happening and to act to stop the situation becoming much worse. Are they simply going to warehouse tens of thousands of files in the remaining IAS offices? What is the system for identifying urgent cases? The LSC don’t have one and nor, it seems, does anyone else.

    It has been suggested that client files belong to the LSC. Certainly there will be hundreds of thousands if not millions of pounds worth of Work in Progress in IAS premises. If the LSC will pay for it, that represents the only substantial financial asset available to the Administrators. It would be a travesty if a plan was being hatched to carry out a mass file billing process as the pre-requisite for the LSC to release money, while the clients are left to rot and other avenues of assistance blocked because it would interfere with packing up files into boxes. The contents of the file belong to the clients and they have a right to access it. The Administrators will be crunching the numbers but the LSC holds the power and the money to at least reduce the chaos and should be the focus of pressure and scrutiny.

    Legal advice and representation is a vital public service. What has happened to IAS is part of the massive cuts to public services now rolling across the country. There needs to be an organised and concerted effort to save that service – whatever form the provision takes in individual towns and cities – so that the vital work of representing the vilified and the vulnerable and holding the government to account can continue.