Those providing legal advice to survivors of modern slavery need to develop a holistic approach that addresses clients’ legal and non-legal needs, a report has urged.
It also found that the use of legal jargon by solicitors could result in “disengagement, frustration, and a lack of trust”.
The report said the legal aid regime needed to change as well so that the diminishing number of providers were paid by the hour rather than on fixed fees, as they were set “too low” to allow lawyers to tackle complex legal needs.
The research, carried out by the British Institute of International and Comparative Law in partnership with anti-slavery charity Unseen UK, was unusual in involving adults with direct experience of modern slavery as project consultants.
Impacts of a lack of legal advice on adults with lived experience of modern slavery was based on 60 responses from a wide range of sources, including law firms, law centres, charities, local authorities, barristers and police and immigration officials.
It found that the system providing legal advice to survivors was “disengaging, piecemeal and significantly under-resourced”.
One of the biggest issues was the lack of quality of legal advice in all areas survivors needed support with, “as often advice is only provided in a narrow field particular providers specialise in related to trafficking”.
The report defined quality as including technical expertise, a ‘holistic approach’ to legal advice provision, “effective and trauma-informed communication with the client”, and timeliness.
This holistic approach needed to address a broad range of survivors’ legal and non-legal needs, such as cultural disorientation, lack of trust, trauma and mental health problems, language barriers, and other factors.
This could be achieved by building partnerships with non-governmental organisations, which in turn could provide training and mentoring, and working with support workers to enable them to better coordinate and inform their clients, rather than merely signpost them to separate services.
Poor communication by solicitors was highlighted as a particular challenge: “Support workers noted that, in some situations, communication is channelled through them even when the client has expressed their preference to be informed directly.
“Moreover, the use of legal jargon by solicitors can result in disengagement, frustration and a lack of trust.”
The lack of access to quality legal advice could “directly affect the recovery and wellbeing” of survivors, the report warned, while legal aid fixed fees also risked disincentivising lawyers from taking on claims.
“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.”
Almost half of respondents estimated that fewer than a quarter of modern slavery victims had access to a legal representative at every stage needed. Only 13% believed that victims had access at most stages in the process.
Meanwhile, a shortage of providers, low legal aid rates and complex administration restricted the amount of work private practitioners were willing to take on.
A lack of “viable funding” led to “a ‘brain drain’ effect, forcing professionals with the requisite knowledge out of the modern slavery sector”.
Researchers went on: “The reduction in the overall number of legal aid providers with expertise on modern slavery and related issues across the UK means that those who are qualified to provide advice are often operating at full staff capacity and are therefore unable to take on new cases.”
This created “major challenges” for referring organisations, which “frequently struggle to find a legal adviser of any kind”.
In an accompanying blog, the report’s authors – Dr Jean-Pierre Gauci, Dr Noemi Magugliani and John Trajer – said: “Our research participants confirmed that a lack of quality legal advice can impact every area where people with lived experience of modern slavery are (or should be) in touch with the legal system – from identification as a ‘victim’, to proceedings covering immigration and asylum issues, access to compensation, criminal cases (as ‘victim’ or accused), or family matters (such as parental rights).
“Yet, the importance of access to quality legal advice is not limited to securing specific legal outcomes in these areas for clients.
“Indeed, project consultants also highlighted how a lack of quality legal advice can affect their recovery and wellbeing directly by contributing to ongoing uncertainty around their situation: not knowing where one stands or what rights one holds in the legal system is a major source of anguish and anxiety that can result in a state of limbo, with individuals unable to move on from their experiences.”
The research was funded by the Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre.