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Impacts of a lack of legal advice on adults with lived experience of modern slavery

Dr Jean-Pierre Gauci, Dr Noemi Magugliani, John Trajer

New research led by BIICL found that the system providing legal advice to modern slavery survivors is inadmissible, disengaging, piecemeal, and significantly under-resourced. 

This has a profound impact on survivors and in areas much wider than previously understood, with much of legal advice provided by providers narrowly focused on trafficking, whereas survivors also need support in other areas, from the recognition as victims, immigration or criminal proceedings, to less talked about impact in areas such as family matters (such as custody of children), compensation and access to other support services.

The research was carried out  in partnership with anti-slavery charity Unseen UK and funded by the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC), which in turn is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Project Methodology

The project carried out a literature review, a survey (which received 60 responses) of lawyers, NGOs providing support, local authorities, survivor-led organisations and others; and consultations with people with lived experience of modern slavery based in England and Wale. The project worked with people with lived experience of modern slavery as project consultants, including on the design of the research tools and the validation of the results.

Key findings

1. People with lived experience of modern slavery often have complex and intersecting legal needs, yet they face a range of challenges in accessing legal advice. These challenges stem from issues relating to the supply of legal aid, awareness of rights, and support in accessing this advice in practice.

2. Access to legal advice is key to the wellbeing of people with lived experience of modern slavery, with quality of legal advice being a critical factor in its impact on individuals. Factors determining the quality of legal advice include the technical expertise of the legal service provider, the adoption of a 'holistic approach' to legal advice provision, effective and trauma-informed communication with the client, and timeliness.

3. A lack of quality legal advice can impact every area where people with lived experience of modern slavery are in touch with the legal system, including: formal identification as a 'victim of modern slavery' and referral into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM); immigration and asylum processes; access to compensation and other remedies; criminal proceedings; family matters; and access to mainstream services.

4. Lack of access to quality legal advice can directly affect the recovery and wellbeing of people with lived experience of modern slavery by contributing to ongoing uncertainty, anguish and anxiety around their situation. A lack of access to quality legal advice can also have significant financial consequences for those who feel compelled to seek private legal advice, which can in turn leave them in debt and increase their vulnerability to re-exploitation. Finally, it can also have negative impacts that extend beyond the situation of the individual in question, for example by reducing the rates of successful prosecutions, as well as on public finances, with quality legal advice having the potential to reduce the number of costly appeals.

5. The research identified a number of promising practices, including dedicated programmes in Scotland and Northern Ireland providing advice prior to entering the National Referral Mechanism; formal collaborations between NGOs, local authorities and legal service providers promoting a holistic approach to legal advice provision; and training and mentoring of legal practitioners by NGOs specialising in modern slavery issues.

Key recommendations

For the Ministry of Justice

1. Free legal advice should be made available for people with lived experience of modern slavery as a standalone entitlement, encompassing the whole range of legal issues individuals might need advice on.

Currently, access to pre-NRM advice has been proposed as an 'add-on' service for individuals already receiving legal aid on an immigration or asylum issue. Instead, free legal advice prior to entering the NRM should be available to all individuals based on their experiences of modern slavery, while legal aid should also be extended to cover issues of identification within the NRM and applications for criminal injuries compensation. Such advice should be independent, timely, and equally accessible for all people with lived experience of modern slavery irrespective of nationality, immigration status, or other characteristics (such as exploitation type).

2. The legal aid funding structure should be revised to ensure that lawyers are not disincentivised from taking on claims by people with lived experience of modern slavery.

Such revisions should include a reconsideration of standard fixed fees, which this and other research has shown are too low to allow legal representatives to adequately address the complex legal needs of people with lived experience of modern slavery. These fixed fees should be replaced by hourly rates. Moreover, greater flexibility should be introduced into the legal aid contracting process to allow the market to respond to a critical need for qualified advisers in specialised areas (such as modern slavery) when the need arises, even if this is outside of the standard tendering cycle (which currently only allows for organisations to enter into legal aid contracts every few years).

3. Adequate training and mentoring opportunities for providers of legal services should be ensured.

Such training should cover relevant substantive and procedural issues, as well as interpersonal skills, including trauma-informed responses and interviewing skills that are relevant for engaging with, and supporting disclosure from, people with lived experience of modern slavery. This training, together with a competency-based assessment, should be integrated within existing accreditation requirements for all areas of civil and criminal legal aid where a need for legal advice may arise for people with lived experience of modern slavery. Additional training opportunities should be made available on a voluntary basis and should be publicly funded.

4. Data on the availability and uptake of modern slavery-related legal advice should be collected by the Ministry of Justice and regularly analysed and monitored by relevant decision-makers to better understand access to justice for people with lived experience of modern slavery.

Such data should be both quantitative and qualitative in nature, indicating not only the number of people with lived experience of Impacts of a lack of legal advice on adults with lived experience of modern slavery that have received legal advice, but also, amongst other things, the areas in which such advice was received. Any such data should be publicly available for scrutiny by researchers, NGOs and other interested parties.

5. Views of people with lived experience of modern slavery should be sought and actively taken into account when revisions to legal aid structures and processes are deliberated.

For the Home Office

6. Greater collaboration between legal advice providers and frontline organisations operating Modern Slavery Victim Care Contract (MSVCC) services should be promoted, including through partnerships that incorporate feedback sessions and mutual training opportunities.

This will improve the identification of legal needs and timely, supported referrals to appropriate (independent) legal services, while also promoting a model of holistic legal advice provision that places the wellbeing of the client at its centre. Formal partnerships may also encourage specialisation by legal aid firms if they can expect steady referrals of modern slavery cases.

7. Frontline organisations should receive additional support (including training and financial support as necessary) in order to implement these measures, owing to the wide range of care responsibilities they already assume.

Training for support workers should include how to prepare and support clients for meetings with solicitors and how to negotiate expectations on both sides.

For support workers and the legal community

8. The legal advice provided should consider the significant and complex needs experienced by some people with lived experience of modern slavery, particularly due to cultural disorientation, lack of trust, trauma and wider mental health issues, language barriers, and other factors.

People with lived experience of modern slavery may need to be assisted by support workers to effectively access and benefit from the legal advice provided. Legal representatives should also be encouraged to manage the expectations of clients - clearly explaining the legal process, relevant timeframes, their own role, and the responsibilities of the client at the outset - and should be subject to clearer complaints processes to ensure ongoing communication and greater accountability in the quality of the service provided.

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