Survivors of trafficking and modern slavery should not have to be means tested to qualify for legal aid, states a coalition of trafficking and legal experts.
Access to early, specialist legal advice and representation is critical for survivors of trafficking and modern slavery. Survivors present with complex legal and support needs, and need legal advice to secure their rights and to access support and justice.
Without access to legal advice, the consequences can be devastating. Survivors are left at risk of destitution, homelessness, removal, and vulnerable to further exploitation and re-trafficking.
Despite this, survivors of trafficking and modern slavery face serious problems getting legal aid. Legal aid is means tested, and this is a huge barrier for survivors.
The legal aid means test is a complicated and bureaucratic attempt to assess a person’s ability to pay for legal advice. It is wholly unsuited to the diverse, complex and often fluctuating financial reality for survivors. The evidence requirements are rigid and often impossible for people who have been trafficked to fulfil. As a result, many survivors are denied the help they need and cannot afford.
The means test also creates an administrative burden and financial risk for legal aid providers, which stops them from taking survivors’ cases. This is helping to create a critical lack of expert lawyers in the UK.
In 2019, the Ministry of Justice announced a Legal Aid Means Test Review. It is now conducting a consultation about its proposed changes to the means test.
We have urged for the proposals to go further in order to address the unique and diverse financial circumstances of survivors. We call for survivors of trafficking and modern slavery to be entitled to non means tested legal aid.
This change would be the most effective way to ensure that survivors can access the legal advice and representation they need, while also removing a substantial administrative burden for legal aid providers that stops many of them taking on trafficking survivors’ cases.