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Asylum seeker legal assistance funding is vital to access to justice

Asylum seeker legal assistance funding is vital to access to justice

By Kerry O'Shea

Advocacy Asylum Justice 

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The Law Institute of Victoria welcomes the state government’s initiative to help improve legal assistance for asylum seekers, which will go some way towards filling the gap caused by serious cuts to federal government funding.

“Asylum seekers are among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable members of our community,” LIV Steven Sapountsis said. “Providing them with legal assistance is a fundamental issue of access to justice.”

In the past, federal funding for legal assistance under the Immigration Advice and Application Assistance Scheme (IAAAS) received bipartisan support. The IAAAS program recognised that asylum seekers, often highly vulnerable and with limited English, were unable to navigate the complex legal process of a protection visa application without legal assistance.

However, since 2014, under the Coalition government, funding has been cut by more than 80 per cent. Meanwhile the numbers of asylum seekers needing assistance to fill out visa applications has surged.

Asylum seekers who are living in the community while awaiting processing are known as the "legacy caseload". They are required to make their claims for temporary protection visas through the new, complex “fast-track” system introduced in 2014. This includes filling out, in English, a 64-page application form with 180 questions that details their claim of fearing serious harm.

The numbers of asylum seekers who make up the legacy caseload in Victoria is estimated at 11,000. 

To assist asylum seekers who are missing out on legal assistance as a result of these cuts, the Law Institute’s Refugee Law Reform Committee began its Legacy Caseload Working Group in mid-2015.

The group brings together service providers and lawyers to help coordinate pro bono assistance for the legacy caseload, in order to take some of the pressure off the specialist CLCs. The focus of the group is on coordinating broader pro bono support for the two main service delivery organisations in Victoria, Refugee Legal and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

Among its initiatives, the group held free Judicial Review training sessions for solicitors and barristers in late February 2016 to help deliver the knowledge and skill required to provide pro bono or low fee legal assistance to asylum seekers who wish to challenge a refusal of an application for a temporary protection visa.

The funding announced by Attorney-General Martin Pakula will be provided to Victoria Legal Aid, Justice Connect and Refugee Legal. It will help fund two specialist immigration lawyers, a coordinator to finalise pro bono or low cost legal assistance and three lawyers at Refugee Legal.

Mr Sapountsis said the LIV welcomes the state government’s decision to assist in filling the funding gap left by the Federal Government cuts. However, the funding only partly helps to fill the void caused by the Federal government’s decision to defund the IAAAS.

“While pro bono work is valuable, there is still a need for the federal government to provide adequate funding for accessible legal services for this vulnerable cohort,” he said.

 

For further information regarding this media release please contact:
Kerry O'Shea, General Manager, Public Affairs & Legal Policy

T: 03 9607 9373
E: media@liv.asn.au


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