The Law as a Tool for Community Empowerment

The Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offender’s Act 2012 has been a travesty for access to justice. As the lack of legal aid has undermined providing genuine equality of arms before the law, it has forced many of us to rethink how we work with vulnerable people in our communities facing the brunt of unrelenting anti-immigrant legislation. It has made us lawyers get out from behind our desks to engage with community groups in providing collaborative services and sharing information about the law as a tool for empowerment.

Within the Immigration Team at ILC, we have undertaken a number of ongoing projects with community partners for example, Hackney Migrant Centre and the Prince’s Trust and these relationships have assisted in identifying strategic issues on the grassroots level, for example, the problems faced by older, long term migrants from the Commonwealth and the young, ‘ nearly’ British, ; both these groups share a common theme to the extent that they are indistinguishable from the ‘host’ community but problems in regularising their immigration status has meant that they have lost access to services, employment or been denied the opportunity of going into higher education .  Their marginalisation can have a significant impact on community cohesion and the law has been the base from which ILC has reached out to community groups, trade unions, educational institutions to provide information, and in supporting those affected to have the confidence to speak out within their communities.

An information event in Hackney last summer saw two young people and an older client who had all been in the UK since childhood and who had kept hidden their immigration status out of fear and ‘shame’ speak out openly. In a similar vein, two clients who had been in the UK for over 40 years and had lost their employment because of confusion about their immigration status were able to highlight the issues to the media; the individual casework was crucial in resolving their immigration issues and the community support was key to these clients feeling valued members of the community able to share their experiences for the benefit of others.

We have to continue considering innovative ways of working, particularly around increasing capacity. Thus far this has included working with city lawyers and law students to provide casework support and assist with exceptional cases funding applications. The challenges and learning continues.

Author: Roopa Tanna, Solicitor Islington Law Centre.

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