Church of England criticises legal aid residency tests

The Church of England has criticised Government proposals to introduce a 12-month residence test to determine whether people should receive legal aid.

In a submission to the Ministry of Justice consultation, the Church said the change could leave victims of human trafficking and domestic abuse, asylum seekers and prisoners with learning difficulties or mental health issues without access to legal aid.

"Our concern is that good legal advice and advocacy should be readily available to all who need it, especially those whose vulnerability places an obligation on society to ensure that they are not defenceless against unjust treatment by any person, organisation or agent of government," the submission says.

It said the proposals would severely disadvantage human trafficking victims or immigrants who became victims of domestic violence at the hands of their partner.  Immigrants held in detention centres would also be hindered in challenging their detention.

The Church went on to say that denying legal aid to asylum seekers until 12 months after they have been granted official asylum seeker status appears to contravene Article 16 of the Refugee Convention, which says they should be treated the same as nationals in relation to legal assistance.

The submission raises questions about the ability of prisoners to understand their human rights in prison, and whether there is sufficient support for prisoners with mental health issues or learning difficulties who wish to make a complaint but are unable to write it down. While the Ministry of Justice's consultation suggests they convey it orally to a member of staff or seek help from a fellow prisoner, the Church of England says this contravenes Prison Service Instructions requiring that complaints are not seen by a member of staff directly involved with the prisoner.The Church also makes the point that prisoners may not feel able to seek help from inmates if they feel intimidated by them.

The submission says: "Given that these are the current arrangements in prisons, it is reasonable to expect that those who, especially through disability, are not able to formulate or write down their own complaints should have access to legal aid to make a complaint, including complaints about treatment."